Google changes course on cookie projects following advertising industry backlash


Google has overhauled a core technology it’s building to replace advertising cookies, after complaints it hasn’t done enough to protect user privacy and could end up further entrenching its own power in the world of advertising .

The change comes more than two years after the research firm first offered publishers a way to target online ads instead of cookies, those small text files inserted into users’ browsers to track their online behavior. line.

Difficulty gaining broad support in the online advertising world has already delayed the move, which was scheduled for the second half of 2023, nearly two years behind schedule.

On Tuesday, Google conceded that part of its cookie replacement, known as Floc, may not do enough to protect the identity of individuals online, and does not make it easy enough for Internet users to understand or control how their data is used. .

Vinay Goel, the product manager in charge of the project, told the Financial Times that Google decided to remove Floc after “feedback” from publishers and other industry players.

He claimed that an alternative method of tracking user interests, known as Topics, would address the concerns, without causing further delays. “I realize that some might think it takes longer [but] we still believe in the calendar,” he said.

The Floc plan involved analyzing users’ browsing habits on their own devices, rather than sending the data to Google’s servers. The company planned to use it to create “cohorts” of anonymous users with similar interests, then let advertisers bid to target ads to the groups.

The idea has been attacked by rivals as a “black box” that would give Google too much control over how online audiences are assembled and sold to advertisers.

Privacy campaigners have complained that if the “cohorts” are too small, it might be possible to combine the data with other information to identify individuals individually. They also warned that groupings made up of a mix of different online interests could lead to people being lumped into categories that could increase the risk of discrimination.

Google said Topics would address concerns by assigning people to simpler, easier-to-understand categories, such as including someone in a “sports” category if they read about baseball.

Broader categories would also reduce the risk of people being identified individually, although Goel said Google would decide on groupings after discussions with publishers and others.

The scrutiny of how Google harnesses its advertising power has only intensified as Apple has made privacy a selling point with consumers, attacking the tracking advertising industry as an attack. to the privacy of users. Apple says its own advertising company respects users by operating only on the device, rather than sending data to the cloud.

Finding a widely acceptable replacement for cookies has left Google on a fine line between privacy and competition concerns.

A group of German publishers complained earlier this week to the European Commission that the company’s plans would unfairly harm publishers and favor the company’s own online advertising business. However, the UK Competition and Markets Authority has accepted Google’s plan, at least in principle.


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