Google has a new plan to replace cookies. Will it work?

In 2021, Google pulled the trigger on its grand plan to get rid of cookies — a fundamental but problematic part of the internet as we know it — and replace them with a new “privacy-first alternative” called Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC . It was a great idea in theory, but unfortunately the plan didn’t work out as well as Google had hoped.

Entangled in regulatory issues and industry backlash, Google pulled the plug on FLoC in January 2022 — but it’s not stopping just yet. It’s already back with a revamped proposal called Topics, and it may be the company’s last chance to take the reins of the “post-third-party cookie world” before the stated 2023 deadline.

Since Google unveiled FLoC two years ago, it has hit one roadblock after another. Not only was the plan hotly contested by privacy advocates, internet companies and advertisers, it was also sharply criticized by regulators in the UK and US, and it quickly became apparent that FLoC’s fate was written before it could be launched publicly. Topics, which Google says are informed by “learning and widespread community feedback from past FLoC trials,” should be the silver bullet that tackles FLoC’s laundry list of concerns.

No one is convinced whether it is possible.

The ins and outs of Google Topics

An image introducing Google Topics.

The way Topics works is quite simple. With Topics, your browser monitors your web activity and determines what interests you based on the types of websites you visit most. For example, if you regularly read sports news, you will be assigned a category of “Sports” or “Travel and Transportation” if you have a vacation planned. It pinpoints a new topic for you each week and keeps a list of five of your most recent — with a sixth at random to throw off anyone you try to identify. When you visit a website, Chrome shares some of your interests with its advertising partners so that they can show you ads that are relevant to you.

Google Topics sounds like a win-win situation at first glance. It not only allows advertisers to target your interests, but does so without compromising your personal information. Even the browsing information the browser uses to infer your topics never leaves your computer – a remarkably more private experience due to the invasive nature of cookies, which are essentially small pieces of data that advertisers store on your devices to profile you and track you over the internet.

Google stated in a statement to Digital Trends that completely disabling third-party cookies, as others like Apple have attempted, leaves advertisers with no choice but to use new shady, secret mechanisms to track people. It argues that building a privacy-first alternative like Topics can provide a middle ground.

And to prove its case (again), Google has learned from its FLoC mistakes to better engineer Topics.

Is Google Topics better than FLoC? Kind of

In FLoC, Chrome grouped people with similar browsing patterns and let advertisers target these groups rather than an individual’s interests. The problem was that this approach potentially exposed a group of vulnerable users. For example, if a few people were looking for loans online, advertisers could easily reach those who are in financial difficulties.

The categories of topics are not automated like in FLoC, and people are assigned from a list of topics compiled by people (excluding categories such as race, sexuality, and income). That’s why Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Topics is more transparent and may lower the risk of sensitive information leaking. In addition, Chrome users have the option to unsubscribe or delete a specific topic associated with them.

The other major shortcoming of FLoC was that, because it searched your entire browsing history to learn your interests, it allowed advertisers to target you based on all your little moves around the web – unlike cookies, which are more limited and only were working on the sites they were manually programmed on. Topics are also included in your browsing history, but Google has made an important change to restrict access: only the advertisers who are present on the site your topics come from can use them to target you.

By Google, for Google

Google CEO Sundar Pichai stands in front of a screen with the Google logo.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

However, that could be a double-edged sword for Google. dr. Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of technology law and policy at Princeton University, says Topics’ revised system will benefit the largest advertisers and reward their far-reaching Internet presence with more comprehensive information about users — “which would benefit Google and harming its competitors.”

That’s where Google’s quest for cookies begins to crumble again. Topics, regardless of the improvements, still raises a massive conflict of interest. Google wants to control the backbone of the industry from which it generates the most revenue. And by the looks of it, solutions like Topics are cleverly designed to solve many of the problems of cookies, while also giving Google an edge over its competitors.

Advertisers aren’t happy with how rarely topics are updated or with their quantity limitations. Google only adds one new topic each week, and given how quickly online trends and people’s attention change, advertisers think that by the time they get a new batch, they’ll be outdated. The loss of third-party cookies is estimated to reduce advertisers’ revenues by as much as 70 percent, and many believe Topics could worsen that figure. Google has yet to share how effective the Topics system is compared to FLoC.

The predicted drop in revenue will eventually push advertisers to resort to covert tracking mechanisms anyway, rendering Google’s original argument for Topics pointless.

Anudit Vikram, chief product officer at MediaMath, an ad technology company, says having access to just five topics in any given week “has very little value to the advertiser,” and that it “will most likely severely reduce the effectiveness of targeting.”

Some also fear that Google will unfairly use the mountains of data it will extract through Topics to target people. In a statement, a company spokesperson told Digital Trends that “while the Privacy Sandbox proposals are being developed and implemented,” their work “will not give preferential treatment or advantage to Google’s advertising products or Google’s own sites.”

The predicted drop in revenue will eventually push advertisers to resort to covert tracking mechanisms anyway, rendering Google’s original argument for Topics pointless. In addition, Google admits that it is still possible for websites to correlate topics with other signals to distract sensitive information and profile users.

Mayer uses three criteria to evaluate Google’s evolving proposals — and until they all meet, they’re unlikely to get off the ground, he says. Those questions are: Would they respect people’s privacy preferences, protect them from shady tracking practices, and enable a more competitive online display advertising market?

“The answer to those questions for FLoC was no, no and no. The answers to those questions for the Topics API are no, no, and no,” he said.

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