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Google Topics: What does the cookie replacement mean for online privacy?

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Google has a new plan to replace cookies, the files that track us when we browse the internet, but it is controversial with advertisers and privacy campaigners



Technology



27 January 2022

TOPSHOT - This picture taken on November 5, 2018 shows a woman passing a booth of Google at the first China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai on . (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

A Google logo at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai in 2018

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

Google has been planning for years to scrap cookies, the tiny files stored on our computers as we browse the internet that allow advertisers to track and target us. This week, it announced it is ditching its planned replacement, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), in favour of a new tool called Topics. Here’s what it means for you and your online privacy.

Why do we need any kind of tracking at all?

Tracking is less about providing a service for users and more about advertising and profit. Advertisers pay to place their products and services in front of certain people they feel may be potential customers – perhaps a bike company wants to target men aged between 18 and 25, living in the UK, with a high disposable income and who have recently browsed the website of a competitor. Tracking, via large data-collecting companies like Google or Meta, allows them to do that.

But many people are growing more and more uncomfortable with the extent to which companies track, analyse and market to them. And governments around the world are increasingly legislating to rein in these tech giants. Companies like Google may be partly reacting to changing customer sentiment with these new tools, but the truth is that they are also being forced to act.

What was FLoC?

Google’s original plan was to better protect the privacy of individuals by gathering them into groups – cohorts – with shared demographics or interests. Advertisers would pay to target, say, a bundle of 1000 young men who lived in the UK, had a high disposable income and had recently been shopping for bikes, rather than individuals who matched that description.

FLoC wasn’t popular among privacy campaigners, who argued that it was still possible to identify individuals by piecing together all of these tiny snippets of information into a bigger picture. The Electronic Frontier Foundation said FLoC would “avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process”.

That plan is now gone. Vinay Goel, who works on Google’s Chrome web browser, told The Drum: “We heard feedback about how to improve on our original design, and we’ve incorporated that feedback.”

What’s the new plan?

The new tool, Topics, does the same thing FLoC was supposed to – keep our identity and movements hidden from advertisers – but in a slightly different way. Chrome will include code that monitors the sites we visit and learns about our interests. It will store this information locally for only three weeks at a time, and categorise us all with tags from a list of 300 interests such as “fitness” or “fashion”.

When visiting a website, your browser will allow advertisers access to three of these topics, chosen at random, so they can decide which adverts to show you. Crucially, those three topics are all that the website and the advertiser will be allowed to know about you – they won’t get information about gender or race, for instance.

But concerns remain in some quarters. “The Topics API only touches the smallest, most minor privacy issues in FLoC, while leaving its core intact,” wrote Peter Snyder in an article on the website of the privacy-focused browser Brave.

What will it mean for web users and advertisers?

Topics will only gather information on Chrome users, although many people who use other browsers are likely to use Google’s web search, email, calendar or myriad other services, so the company can still gather information that way. There are other options for the privacy-conscious, such as Apple’s Private Relay, which allows you to browse anonymously and keep data out of advertisers’ hands.

The changes are likely to make life harder for advertisers, who have grown used to being able to access a wealth of data and closely target adverts. It is in Google’s interests to avoid that as far as rules like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) allow it to – after all, Google doesn’t charge for its services, instead making money from advertising.

Nonetheless, some in the advertising industry are concerned. Mike Woosley at data-collection company Lotame told Adweek: “Topics is a dumbed-down version of FLoC. It’s the same contextual targeting capability from around 2005. It’s not very sophisticated.”

What happens next?

Google says it will officially end support for third-party cookies in the middle of 2023, although this date has been delayed before. At that point, other advertisers will no longer be able to place cookies and track Chrome users. Google says that Chrome will allow users to see their assigned topics, remove any they wish to or even disable the feature completely.

Advertisers, technology giants and regulators will be closely monitoring developments. A balance will have to be found that allows the advertising business model of internet companies to continue, but in a way that placates users and governments about excessive data collection.

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