Jan 25, 2022 - Technology

Google adopts a new cookie replacement following privacy concerns

Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Google Tuesday said it's changing its plan for replacing the cookies that help advertisers target users to a new system called Topics, in which advertisers will place ads via a limited number of topics determined by users' browser activity.

Why it matters: The new Topics proposal replaces Google's previously-announced plan called FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), which was criticized by privacy advocates who worried the new ad-targeting solution would inadvertently make it easier for advertisers to gather user information.

  • Asked why the company decided to introduce a new solution, Google senior director for product Ben Galbraith acknowledged privacy concerns with FLoC and said Topics was easier for users to understand. He also said Topics would make it easier for Google to remove sensitive topics from being used to target users.
  • Galbraith noted that Topics was informed by learnings and advertising industry feedback from earlier FLoC trials.

How it works: The new solution lets advertisers target users online based on select topics, like "fitness" or "travel," that a user is likely to be interested in.

  • Google Chrome generates five topics from users' browser history with participating websites. It then sends three topics, one from each of the past three weeks, to participating sites to share with their advertising partners to be used to target users. Topics are stored for three weeks, then deleted.
  • For now, Google has selected 350 topics that can be pulled from, but it may add hundreds more as it experiments.

Be smart: The Topics data is stored on individuals' devices without involving any external servers, including Google's. This is different from third-party tracking cookies, which allowed companies to use tracking pixels to trace user activity across many sites and build users' profiles without giving them any visibility or control over the process.

  • Users will be able to see the topics generated by their browser history that are being sent to participating sites via controls within Google Chrome.
  • If they don't like the topics, users can remove them or disable the feature completely. Google said the topics are "thoughtfully curated" and won't include potentially sensitive categories, like gender or race.

Catch up quick: Google first said two years ago that it would begin phasing out third-party cookies from its search browser Chrome and would instead introduce other forms of identifiers to track people as they browse across the web.

  • A year ago, it announced that it had finally come up with a working replacement, FLoC, and that it would be spending months getting feedback from the ad industry.
  • But later that year, the company said it would need more time to work out a cookie replacement. It said it would officially cease support for third-party cookies by late 2023, after initially promising to do so by the beginning of 2022. Galbraith says that timing still stands, despite the switch from FLoC to Topics.

Between the lines: One of the criticisms of FLoC was that the identifier created to target users was based on group "cohorts" and that data could be used to add to an existing user fingerprint to track them better.

  • With Topics, it's harder for anyone to map user data back to a user because the topics are updated so frequently. Google said it also sends fake topics to about 5% of the websites to make sure topic generation is too random to trace.

The big picture: Google's effort to phase out support for tracking cookies comes amid new online privacy changes and regulations that are meant to limit individual tracking on the web. Browser rivals like Apple have also introduced efforts to remove support for tracking cookies.

  • Topics is being developed as a part of a larger Google initiative called the Privacy Sandbox, which includes a set of proposals created in consultation with the broader ad industry to move away from tracking cookies.
  • Google and other industry players have offered more than 30 proposals for phasing out cookies. Five trials originating from Chrome have been launched. Two have concluded, including FLoC, and another is concluding in January. Topics will begin a trial in coming months.

What to watch: Some web publishers are skeptical of Google's efforts, arguing the phase-out of third-party cookies will benefit Google while putting publishers at a disadvantage.

  • On Monday, a group of German publishers — including the country's largest media company, Axel Springer — sent a letter to the EU's top competition regulator alleging that Google's efforts to phase out cookies by next year is illegal, per the Financial Times.


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