Following backlash over cookie phase-out, Google launches new proposal

Google's Chrome is the most used web browser, estimated to have two-thirds of the global market share across all devices. [Tada Images/Shutterstock]

Following the somewhat unpopular plan to phase out cookies in its Chrome web browser, Google has laid down Topics API as a method of tracking users online through a topic-centred tracking system.

The tech giant scrapped its previous bid for Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) on Tuesday (25 January) after presenting an alternative way of showing relevant ads without tracking the user via third-party cookies. FLoC prompted criticism in the online ecosystem, as publishers and advertisers feared a drop in revenues.

“We started the Privacy Sandbox initiative to improve web privacy for users, while also giving publishers, creators and other developers the tools they need to build thriving businesses, ensuring a safe and healthy web for all,” wrote Chrome’s product director Vinay Goel in a blog post.

Google’s new plan is called Topics API. Chrome will log the top five topics representing users’ interests each week. The topics would be updated every week, and historical data deleted three weeks after collection.

When visiting a website that supports Topics API, advertisers would be able to display advertising content based on the top three topics, “one topic from each of the past three weeks”. According to Google, topics preferences would be stored directly on the device, avoiding transfers of data to third parties or Google’s servers.

Google specifies that it is building user controls in Chrome to allow users to see the associated topics, modify them at any time or even shut down the feature altogether. Sensitive categories such as gender or race have been purposely excluded from the tracking.

The company has also developed a taxonomy that currently includes around 350 relevant topics but is set to reach several thousand as the system is perfected. Topics will now enter a trial phase as Google announced its intention to phase out third-party cookies by 2023 completely.

An illustration of the difference between cookies (left) and Topics (right) [Google]

“Google’s plan to get rid of cookies certainly has good intentions, but it inevitably puts the tech giant in the position of the other big tech companies, that of a tightrope walker who has to find the perfect balance between data protection and competition,” said Vincenzo Tiani, a partner at Panetta law firm.

Google’s plan to change its privacy policy has prompted scrutiny, given the company’s massive clout in the online ecosystem. Google is the world’s top advertiser, and Chrome is the most used web browser, controlling a market share equivalent to two-thirds of internet users.

The FLoC proposal faced harsh criticism; for instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it a ‘terrible idea’ from a privacy point of view. While the Topics notion seems to address at least some of these privacy concerns, it does not put to rest the competition worries that Google might use its web browser services to expand its position in the advertising market.

Just this week, a coalition of German publishers complained to the European Commission that Google’s strategy to phase out of cookies consisted of abuse of market dominance.

“In the data economy, national and European privacy and antitrust authorities should converge to get a complete picture of the market and better protect consumers,” Tiani added.

German media industry opposes Google's planned cookie phase-out

Germany’s media and advertising industry has criticised Google for the third-party cookie phase-out it plans to implement in its Chrome browser by 2023 as it could deprive them of a lucrative source of revenue. EURACTIV Germany reports.

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