Google will try broad, transparent identifiers to replace invasive cookies

Advertisers certainly won't be happy about the lack of detailed personal information.

This photo is a symbol for the internet cookies in the internet browser.

It’s now been more than two years since Google first announced its intentions to replace tracking cookies in Chrome, and the company still hasn’t figured out exactly how it’s going to do so. Google is now testing something called “Topics API,” which will attempt to one-up the much-maligned FLoC methodology it’s been working on for the past few years.

The Topics API, as Google explains, distills your most recent browsing history into a series of — you guessed it — topics. These topics will be necessarily broad, such as “Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation.” Those topics are chosen completely on your device, without ever being sent to Google’s servers, and they’ll be stored in your browser for just three weeks.

Cookies have ruled internet advertising for decades, now, but overwhelming privacy concerns have quickly soured public opinion of the technology. Now, with entire industries built on cookies, we’re finding it difficult to find a new solution that doesn’t sacrifice user privacy.

The lesser of all evils — Where standard user tracking focuses on being as detailed as possible, Topics API takes the opposite approach. Your exact browsing data is never shared with third-party companies — they only get to understand your interests in broad strokes. Topics API is also looking to increase transparency for users, so they can better understand what information is being shared with advertisers. In the case of Topics, that simply means you’ll be able to peek at which topics Chrome has chosen for you at any given time.

You’ll also be able to remove any you don’t particularly like or aren’t actually interested in. Google mentions that “potentially sensitive categories” like race or sexual orientation will not be included.

FLoC flop — Google hasn’t had much luck at all in its early cookie replacement testings. Its first major solution, called FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), also aimed to provide more anonymity to users, but watchdogs quickly latched onto its own problems. Combining seemingly anonymous information with existing profile information could allow advertisers to identify users with relative ease, they argued.

Topics API is, at the very least, a fresh approach, an entirely different angle than what Google tried with FLoC. Will privacy advocates take to this approach more readily? We’ll have to wait for Topics API to launch in trial — supposedly during the first quarter of the year — to find out. Google wants partners and regulatory authorities to send their feedback on the idea as soon as possible.

Either way, one thing is fairly certain: Advertisers won’t be happy with these broad identifiers.