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Google proposes a new way to track people around the Web. Again.

The company’s plans to get rid of third-party cookies have prompted concerns from privacy advocates and regulators

(Ng Han Guan/AP)
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Google floated a new set of ideas Tuesday for changing how advertising on the Web should work, scrapping and replacing a previous plan that had triggered anger and concern from privacy advocates and government competition regulators alike.

The new system, called Topics, will track users on Google’s Chrome browser and assign them a set of advertising categories, like travel or fitness, based on the sites they visit. When the person goes to a site with ads, three of those topics will be shared with advertisers on the site, allowing them to show a relevant ad.

The previous proposed system, called FLOC, assigned users to a group of people who Google’s AI determined had the same interests. Privacy advocates argued that the ID number associated with a user’s group could be logged by websites and advertisers and used to build profiles of people.

The proposals are part of Google’s master plan to get rid of third-party cookies, the little bits of code that websites drop into people’s browsers that let them follow them around the Web, building detailed profiles of their behavior and continuing to advertise to them long after they leave the site. The system is a minefield for privacy and has spurred many people to download ad blockers. But Google relies on advertising and argues content producers like news organizations and other websites need ads to survive, so it’s been proposing alternatives that try to find a middle path between the current free-for-all situation and a totally private Web.

Google is totally changing how ads track people around the Internet. Here’s what you need to know.

This particular middle path might not make anyone happy though.

“Privacy advocates might still cry foul that people are being tagged or categorized by topics,” said Ratko Vidakovic, founder of AdProfs, an independent advertising technology consulting firm. The new system is “arguably more privacy-safe” than FLOC, he said. “But that still might not be enough.”

On the flip side, Topics provides so little information to advertisers that it will be less useful than FLOC would have been, Vidakovic said.

For advertisers that are used to buying highly targeted ads, the new system is “basically pointless,” said Wayne Blodwell, founder and CEO of the Programmatic Advisory, an adtech consulting firm. Another issue is that by recording when someone goes to a certain website and using that information to decide which topic they should see ads on, Google is essentially using one website’s data to help other websites advertise more accurately, Blodwell said.

Other browsers, such as Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox, have already blocked most third-party cookies. But because Google’s Chrome makes up more than 60 percent of the market on both phones and desktop computers, what Google decides to do will have by far the largest impact on the Web. Google has said it won’t get rid of third-party cookies until the end of 2023.

But the new systems would give more control to Google and less to the advertisers it says it is defending. Right now, websites can collect their own data on peoples’ habits and use it how they see fit. With Google’s proposals, the company itself would keep all the data, running calculations to determine what its users’ interests are and then giving only the topic to the advertiser. The move has already pushed many advertisers to ask customers for their email lists so they can advertise to them directly rather than rely on the Web.

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Though the new system seems to be more private, it doesn’t address the competition concerns, said Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant. “For those who were concerned, competition remains an issue. In this case control is still with the Web browser,” he said.

Regulators have already raised concerns about Google’s plans to block third-party cookies. The company made tweaks to its FLOC proposal in November because of complaints from the British competition regulator. And on Monday, a group of German publishers sent a complaint to the European Union’s competition authority outlining their own concerns.

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