Google takes new approach to eliminating cookies

Topics for Privacy Sandbox will assign broad ‘interests’ based on browser activity

Google has introduced a new way for advertisers to target consumers without using potentially intrusive trackers. Topics will allow the browser to determine a handful of users' broad interests based on browsing history, Chrome Privacy Sandbox product director Vinay Goel said. That could be fitness, travel and so on.

The topics are only retained for three weeks, Mr Goel said, and are selected on your device. Advertisers only see three topics per user, and old topics are deleted.

Topics replaces Google’s earlier federated learning of cohorts, or FLoC, approach. That aimed to put people into broad groups determined by web browsing history in the previous week. Advertisers could target that group, but would not know what individual consumers were in there or what their shared interests were.

However, the FLoC approach was found to be less effective, and was also opposed by privacy groups. Google said it took some of the lessons learned from the FLoC trial.

“Topics are selected entirely on your device without involving any external servers, including Google servers. When you visit a participating site, Topics picks just three topics, one topic from each of the past three weeks, to share with the site and its advertising partners,” Mr Goel said.

“Topics enables browsers to give you meaningful transparency and control over this data. And in Chrome, we’re building user controls that let you see the topics, remove any you don’t like or disable the feature completely.”

The topics also exclude categories classed as sensitive, such as gender or race, Google said.

Sharing of data

“ Because Topics is powered by the browser, it provides you with a more recognisable way to see and control how your data is shared, compared to tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies. And, by providing websites with your topics of interest, online businesses have an option that doesn’t involve covert tracking techniques, like browser fingerprinting, in order to continue serving relevant ads,” Mr Goel said.

Google plans to launch a developer trial of Topics in Chrome in the coming weeks that includes user controls and gives developers a chance to see how it will work.

Privacy Sandbox was created as an alternative to intrusive ad tracking, improving web privacy for users but allowing publishers, creators and developers to target advertising.

Google wants to block tracking cookies in its Chrome web browser by the end of next year, which would prevent advertising companies from logging the websites someone is visiting.

However, advertisers, website owners and privacy groups have all raised alarms over the planned transition, and complaints have led antitrust authorities in the United States, UK and elsewhere to watch Google's plans closely. Online ad buyers and sellers are weighing successors to the cookies.

This week, it emerged that Google is facing a fresh complaint from Germany’s largest publishers and advertisers, which are demanding that the EU intervene over the search giant’s plan to stop the use of third-party cookies – a move they say will damage their businesses while allowing the Silicon Valley group to collect vast amounts of user data in ways that leave its own ads-based search business unaffected. – Additional reporting: Reuters