When Google announced a plan to block digital tracking cookies from its Chrome web browser two years ago, the advertising industry and regulators were concerned that the proposal would further anchor the search giant’s dominance over online ads.
The call eventually forced Google to postpone its rollout by almost two years until the end of 2023.
On Tuesday, Google said it scrapped its old plan and offered a new way to block third-party trackers in Chrome with an online advertising system called Topics. The new system will still remove cookies, but it will inform advertisers of a user’s areas of interest – such as “fitness” or “cars and vehicles” – based on the last three weeks of the user’s browser history. The items are stored for three weeks before being deleted.
Google’s plan to remove cookies by the end of next year is a potentially big shift for the digital advertising industry, although it is not clear whether the new method that the company will start testing in the first quarter of this year will be less alarming. to advertisers and regulators. Google Chrome, the world’s most widely used web browser, is used by two out of three people who surf the Internet, according to StatCounter.
Google said in 2019 that it would do away with third-party trackers in Chrome through an initiative called Privacy Sandbox. The trackers enable ad services to follow users around the web to learn about their browser habits. The company later unveiled a plan known as federated learning of cohorts or FLoC. It was intended to allow advertisers to target user groups, based on shared browser history, rather than individuals.
Apple has also cracked down on advertisers, limiting their ability to track users when surfing the web. Last year, the company introduced App Tracking Transparency, which allows users to block apps from tracking them, a decision that caused concern among Facebook and other major advertisers.
As marketers rely heavily on cookies to target ads and measure their effectiveness, Google’s privacy proposition led to concerns that it would strengthen the company’s grip on the industry because Google already knows so much about users’ interests and habits. Privacy experts feared the cohorts could expose users to new forms of tracking.
Google’s proposal also caught the eyes of regulators. The European Union said it was examining the plan as part of a study of Google’s role in the digital advertising market. Last year, the UK Competition and Market Authority reached an agreement with Google to allow the regulator to review changes to trackers in Chrome as part of a settlement in another investigation.
Topics will address some of the concerns raised by privacy advocates about FLoC, preventing more covert tracking techniques, Google said. It aims to preserve users’ privacy by segmenting its audience into larger groups.
Google said there had been tens of thousands of potential cohorts under the previous plan, but that it would reduce the number of topics to fewer than a few thousand. The company said users would be able to see what topics were associated with them and remove them if they chose.
“It’s a little more privacy than FLoC,” said Sara Collins, a senior policy adviser at the nonprofit Public Knowledge. The larger topic groups would give users more anonymity, but Google’s plan can still be circumvented by fingerprinting techniques designed to track individual users, she said.
Google said Topics would use human curators instead of allowing machine learning technology to generate user groups, as the FLoC plan did. This will eliminate the possibility that groups may be based on sensitive characteristics such as sexual orientation or race, Google said.
“There were a couple of research studies that showed concern that this is happening,” Vinay Goel, who oversees the Privacy Sandbox initiative at Google, said in an interview. “We did not find evidence that this happened.”
Peter Snyder, director of privacy at Brave, a privacy-oriented search engine, said the changes with Topics did not address the core issues of Google’s previous proposals.
“The root is Google’s insistence on sharing information about people’s interests and behavior with advertisers, trackers and others on the web who are hostile to privacy,” said Mr. Cheats in a statement. “These groups have no business – and no right – to learn such sensitive information about you.”
Google’s topic plan repeats a revision made of their search product several years ago. In 2019, the company allowed users to configure their search history to automatically clean every three or 18 months. This made it harder for advertisers to target individuals with highly personalized ads based on their web traffic. Google also allowed users to disable it from recording search stories completely.
Critics noted that the privacy checks were ineffective because they were difficult for the average person to find, and by default, Google continues to keep a permanent record of people’s search history.