First-Party Sets and the SameParty attribute

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Many organizations have related sites with different domain names, such as brandx.site and fly-brandx.site—or domains for different countries such as example.com, example.rs, example.co.uk and so on.

Browsers are moving towards making third-party cookies obsolete to improve privacy on the web, but sites like these often rely on cookies for functionalities that require maintaining and accessing state across domains (such as single sign-on and consent management).

First-Party Sets can allow related domain names that are owned and operated by the same entity to be treated as first-party in situations where first party and third party are otherwise treated differently. The domain names within a first-party set are considered same-party and they can label which cookies are intended to be set or sent in the same-party context. The aim is to find a balance between preventing cross-site tracking by third-parties while still maintaining a path that doesn't break valid use-cases.

The First-Party Sets proposal is currently in the testing phase, read on to find out how it works and how you can try it out.

What is the difference between first-party and third-party cookies?

Cookies are not inherently first-party or third-party, it depends on the current context where the cookie is included. That's either on a request in the cookie header or via document.cookie in JavaScript.

If for example, video.site has a theme=dark cookie, when you're browsing video.site and a request is made to video.site, that's a same-site context and the included cookie is first-party.

However, if you're on my-blog.site which embeds an iframe player for video.site, when the request is made from my-blog.site to video.site that's cross-site context and the theme cookie is third-party.

Diagram showing a cookie from video.site in two contexts. The cookie is same-site when the top-level context is also video.site. The cookie is cross-site when the top-level context is my-blog.site with video.site in an iframe.

Cookie inclusion is determined by the cookie's SameSite attribute:

  • Same-site context with SameSite=Lax, Strict, or None makes the cookie first-party.
  • Cross-site context with SameSite=None makes the cookie third-party.

However, this isn't always so clear cut. Imagine brandx.site is a travel booking site and they also use fly-brandx.site and drive-brandx.site to separate flights and car hire. Over the course of booking one journey, visitors go between these sites to select their different options—they expect their "shopping cart" of selections to persist across these sites. brandx.site manages the user's session with a SameSite=None cookie to allow it in cross-site contexts. The downside though is now the cookie has no Cross Site Request Forgery (CSRF) protection. If evil.site includes a request to brandx.site then it would include that cookie!

The cookie is cross-site, but all those sites are owned and operated by the same organization. Visitors also understand it's the same organization and want the same session, in other words—a shared identity, across them.

With First-Party Sets there's a route to define the situations where a cross-site context is still first-party. The cookie can be included within the first-party set and excluded in third-party contexts.

Diagram showing how a cookie may still be included in a cross-site context if the sites are part of the same First-Party Set, but that it would be rejected for cross-site contexts outside of the set.

First-Party Sets policy

First-Party Sets proposes a method for explicitly defining this relationship across multiple sites that are owned and operated by the same party. This would enable brandx.site to define its first-party relationship with fly-brandx.site, drive-brandx.site, and so on.

The Privacy Model that drives the various Privacy Sandbox proposals is based on the concept of partitioning identity to prevent cross-site tracking—drawing a boundary between sites that limits access to any information that can be used to identify users.

Diagram showing the unpartitioned state where the same third-party cookie is accessible in multiple cross-site contexts in contrast to a partitioned model where each top-level context has a separate instance of the cross-site cookie preventing linking activity across those sites.

While the default option is to partition by site, which solves many first-party use cases, the brandx.site example shows that a first-party can be larger than just one site.

Diagram showing how the same instance of a cookie for one set may be included in cross-site contexts when all those sites are part of the same set.

An important part of the First-Party Sets proposal is to ensure that policy across browsers prevents abuse or misuse. For example, First-Party Sets must not enable the exchange of user information across unrelated sites, or the grouping of sites that are not owned by the same entity. The idea is to ensure that a First-Party Set maps to something a person understands as a first-party and is not used as a way of sharing identity across different parties.

One possible way for a site to register a first-party set could be for the site to submit their proposed group of domains to a public tracker (such as a dedicated GitHub repository) along with information needed to satisfy browser policy.

The acceptance process for a new first-party set is under discussion with the W3C and one of the considered options is for verification to be handled by an independent entity, not a browser company.

Once the first-party set assertion has been verified as per policy, browsers may then fetch lists of sets via an update process.

The origin trial has a defined policy which is not final, but the principles are likely to remain the same:

  • The domains in a first-party set must be owned and operated by the same organization.
  • The domains should be recognisable to users as a group.
  • The domains should share a common privacy policy.

How to define a first-party set

Once you identify the members and the owner of your organization's first-party set, a crucial step will be to submit your proposed set for approval. The exact process is still under discussion.

Caution

A first-party set is not meant to be an exhaustive list of sites that belong to the same organization. You only need to create a set between sites if you explicitly need a cross-site cookie allowed across them. Make sure you check out What use cases are right for the First-Party Sets Origin Trial? below.

To declare a first-party set, static JSON resources that list members and owners should be hosted at /.well-known/first-party-set at the top-level of each included domain.

In the example of the brandx first-party set, the owner-domain hosts the following at
https://brandx.site/.well-known/first-party-set:

{
"owner": "brandx.site",
"version": 1,
"members": ["fly-brandx.site", "drive-brandx.site"]
}

Each member of the set also hosts a static JSON resource pointing back to the owner of the set.
At https://fly-brandx.site/.well-known/first-party-set we have:

{ "owner": "brandx.site" }

And at https://drive-brandx.site/.well-known/first-party-set:

{ "owner": "brandx.site" }

There are a few constraints for first-party sets:

  • A set may only have one owner.
  • A member may only belong to one set, no overlapping or mixing.
  • The members list is intended to remain relatively human-readable and not excessively large.

You may already be hosting a similar file if you are using Digital Asset Links to link sites that share the same account management backend. This is specifically to allow the same credentials to be suggested by the Chrome password manager across the affiliated sites.

How do First-Party Sets affect cookies?

The matching ingredient for cookies is the proposed SameParty attribute. Specifying SameParty tells the browser to include the cookie when its context is part of the same first-party set as the top-level context.

That means that if brandx.site sets this cookie:

Set-Cookie: session=123; Secure; SameSite=Lax; SameParty

Then when the visitor is on fly-brandx.site and a request goes to brandx.site then the session cookie will be included on that request.
If some other site which is not a part of the first-party set, for example hotel.xyz, sends a request to brandx.site, the cookie would not be included.

Diagram showing the brandx.site cookie allowed or blocked in cross-site contexts as described.

Until SameParty is widely supported, use SameSite attribute along with it to define fallback behavior for cookies. You can think of the SameParty attribute as giving you a setting between SameSite=Lax and SameSite=None.

  • SameSite=Lax; SameParty will expand the Lax functionality to include same-party contexts where supported, but falls back to the Lax restrictions if not.
  • SameSite=None; SameParty will restrict the None functionality to just same-party contexts where supported, but falls back to the wider None permissions if not.

There are some additional requirements:

  • SameParty cookies must include Secure.
  • SameParty cookies must not include SameSite=Strict.

Secure is mandated as this is still cross-site and you should mitigate those risks by ensuring secure (HTTPS) connections. Likewise, because this is a cross-site relationship, SameSite=Strict is invalid as it still allows for tightly site-based CSRF protection within a set.

Gotchas

The SameParty attribute is only affecting the contexts where a cookie may be sent, it does not create a shared cookie jar. A cookie from brandx.site is only available on requests or documents for brandx.site, the cookie is never directly available to fly-brandx.site. This can be confusing as you may see this referenced as shared identity, but this means that the relaxed boundary between the sites allows them to set or send cookies in same-party, cross-site contexts—not that cookies are directly shared.

What use cases are right for First-Party Sets?

First-Party Sets are a good match for cases when an organization needs a form of shared identity across different top-level sites. Shared identity in this case means anything from a full single sign-on solution to just needing a shared preference across sites.

You can identify possible candidates for these use cases because they will be instances where you have already marked a cookie as SameSite=None even though it's only for cross-site contexts where you own all the sites involved.

Your organization may have different top-level domains for:

  • App domains: office.com,live.com, microsoft.com
  • Branded domains: amazon.com, audible.com / disney.com, pixar.com
  • Country-specific domains to enable localization: google.co.in, google.co.uk
  • Service domains that users never directly interact with, but provide services across the same organization's sites: gstatic.com, githubassets.com, fbcdn.net
  • Sandbox domains that users never directly interact with, but exist for security reasons: googleusercontent.com, githubusercontent.com

How do you get involved?

If you have a set of sites that matches the criteria above then there are a number of options to get involved. The lightest investment is to read and join the discussion on the two proposals:

During the testing phase, you can try the functionality using the --use-first-party-set command line flag and providing a comma separated list of sites.

You can try this on the demo site at https://fps-member1.glitch.me/ after starting Chrome with the following flag:

--use-first-party-set=https://fps-member1.glitch.me,https://fps-member2.glitch.me,https://fps-member3.glitch.me

This is helpful if you want to test in your development environment, or want to try adding the SameParty attribute in a live environment to see how a first-party set would affect the cookies.

If you have the bandwidth for experimentation and feedback, you can also sign up for the Origin Trial for First Party Sets and SameParty which is available in Chrome from version 89 to 93.

Key Term

Origin trials are Chrome's way of enabling external developers to test early proposals in real-world scenarios to provide the feedback needed to evolve and iterate towards something that meets the needs of the web platform. Learn more in Getting started with Chrome's origin trials.

How to update cookies for the origin trial

If you are joining the origin trial and testing the SameParty attribute on your cookies, here are two patterns to consider.

Option 1

First, where you have cookies that you have labelled as SameSite=None but you would like to restrict to first-party contexts, you can add the SameParty attribute to them. In browsers where the origin trial is active, the cookie will not be sent in cross-site contexts outside the set.

However, for the majority of browsers outside of the origin trial the cookie will continue to be sent cross-site as usual. Consider this as a progressive enhancement approach.

Before:
set-cookie: cname=cval; SameSite=None; Secure

After:
set-cookie: cname=cval; SameSite=None; Secure; SameParty

Option 2

The second option is more work, but allows you to fully separate the origin trial from existing functionality and specifically allows testing of the SameSite=Lax; SameParty combination.

Before:
set-cookie: cname=cval; SameSite=None; Secure

After:

set-cookie: cname=cval; SameSite=None; Secure
set-cookie: cname-fps=cval; SameSite=Lax; Secure; SameParty

When checking for the cookie on incoming requests, you should only expect to see the cname-fps cookie on a cross-site request if the sites involved are in the set and the browser is in the origin trial. Consider this approach like a concurrent launch of an updated feature before turning down the previous version.

Why might you not need a first-party set?

For the majority of sites, their site boundary is an acceptable place to draw the partition or privacy boundary. This is the route that's being proposed with CHIPS (Cookies Having Independent Partitioned State) which would give sites an opt-in route via the Partitioned attribute to still have those critical cross-site embeds, resources, APIs, and services, while preventing leakage of identifying information across sites.

A few other things to consider that mean your site might be fine without needing a set:

  • You host over different origins, not different sites. In the example above, if brandx.site had fly.brandx.site and drive.brandx.site then those are different subdomains all within the same site. The cookies can use SameSite=Lax and there's no set needed.
  • You provide third-party embeds to other sites. In the intro, the example of a video from video.site embedded on my-blog.site is a clear third-party divide. The sites are operated by different organizations and users see them as separate entities. Those two sites should not be in a set together.
  • You provide third-party social sign-in services. Identity providers using things like OAuth or OpenId connect often rely on third-party cookies for a smoother sign-in experience for users. It's a valid use case, but it's not suitable for First-Party Sets as there's a clear difference in organizations. Early proposals like WebID are exploring ways to enable these use cases.

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