Monday, March 18, 2013

what ever happened to the second party?

I got into a terminology discussion with Brendan this week, and it turns out there's general confusion over these labels we give to businesses on the web: first party and third party.  This topic has been debated ad nauseum in the TPWG, but I want to share my thoughts on what it means in the context of cookies and the general browser/webpage point of view.

The Marx brothers have a take on this in Night at the Opera when they get into discussion of parties and contracts, and I think they're on to something, but on the web these party labels probably come from business-focused contractual engagements. So which party am I?  I'm not a party (though that sounds like fun).

In the case of cookies, the party labels are all about contractual arrangements to produce a good or service for you. You, the surfer, are not part of the contract, but you benefit from a system of first, second and third party businesses.

Here, the first party is the business you seek to engage.  The second party in question is a contractor doing business explicitly for the first party. For example, when you visit the grocery store, someone might help bag your groceries. Maybe they're a temp worker and are actually employed by a different company, but their sole job is to do what the grocery store asks, and they do their work in the store. In these cases there's a direct business agreement between first (business) and second (contractor) parties to produce one service or good. For all intents and purposes, the bagger seems like part of the store.
Second-party cookies don't make much sense in the online cookie context since to the web browser, there's no technical distinction between the first-party or second-party web software. The assumption here is that second parties operate within the "umbrella" of the first party, so the cookies are part of the first party offering.

Any third party players are peripheral to the transaction and may add value but their primary purpose is something other than the sought-after good or service. These third parties are more like the flier guy who walks around the parking lot while you shop and puts discount fliers for his car dealership on everyone's windshields.  (Wow, zero down, $169 a month?)  He's not stocking shelves or bagging your groceries at the grocery store, but is still a peripheral part of the whole grocery shopping experience. Customers expectations for the third party here are likely different than those for the temp worker.  (What's maybe not obvious, is if you go to his dealership, the flyer may inform him what kind of groceries you bought, and tracking cookies can be even more invisible than these fliers -- but that's a blog post for a different day.)

So how's this work online?  The first party on this blog is me:  There's a second party here too, the folks who made my blog framework software.  They maintain the software (I'm too lazy), and I use it to publish my blog, but it all comes through on this same domain name.  When you read this, the two of us are working together with the goal of bringing you my thoughts.  There also happen to be a "G+ Share" button and search bar on the site, but they're third party; controlled by some other entity, served over a different domain, and only showing up here to augment your experience beyond the blog you seek.

So don't panic: the second parties are still there!  We just don't use the term much because they're so tightly integrated with first parties, that they usually appear the same.