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Google is changing the way it tracks us online, but who benefits?

Cookies are one of many dubious agreements we have made online, where privacy is sacrificed for convenience without fully understanding the repercussions. This agreement, like so many others involving our data, is being modified in the presence of authorities. Google released an update last week on how it is replacing cookies on its Chrome browser, which is significant because Chrome accounts for two-thirds of all online surfing worldwide.

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Simply put, a cookie is a text file that a website places in your browser when you visit it. When you click on a website in the UK or EU, you are asked to consent to many cookies (and yes, it is worth verifying how many cookies you agree to accept when you give your approval).

Last week, on International Data Privacy Day, John Edwards, the new head of the UK’s data watchdog, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that he is not a fan of the consent-clicking procedure. “Who’s not a very effective means of rebalancing the power dynamic between customers and firms that profit from their data,” he says.

Google Cookie monsters

Cookies allow the website to track various aspects of your behavior by identifying individual users. Some of this information is important, such as if you have already signed in to the site so you don’t have to enter your user name and password each time you visit. A first-party cookie is what this is called.

However, there are third-party cookies, which allow commercial partners – usually marketing or advertising organizations – to keep information (such as your browsing history and location) that may make you feel uneasy. You’ll be surprised at how many advertising and marketing-related cookies there are if you check the cookie permission box on any website. Third-party cookies can develop a profile of individual users and provide targeted advertisements to you when you browse across numerous websites thanks to agreements with multiple publishers and websites. The Guardian, like other news publishers, asks users for permission to use cookies for purposes such as monitoring how frequently readers come and use our site and giving readers personalized adverts.

Third-party cookies are being phased out across the board, which looks to be a victory for privacy campaigners and a setback for publishers, marketers, and the intermediates that permit tailored adverts across the web. This is due in part to regulatory pressure and pro-privacy legislation such as GDPR. Apple and Mozilla have disabled third-party cookies in their Safari and Firefox browsers, respectively, and Google plans to do the same in Chrome by 2023.

Leaving the FLoC behind, Google is replacing third-party cookies with a collection of technologies known as a privacy sandbox, and it recently stated that one of the core recommendations will be changed. The initial goal was to classify people (cohorts) based on their surfing behavior and then allow marketers to sell adverts to those groups. FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts.

Google is now proposing an alternative approach in response to industry comments, which included worries that individuals may still be identifiable while they browsed the web under the FLoC scheme. Topics save your key interests for the week in the browser (like a cookie) under broad categories like “fitness” or “travel,” which offer a limited number of choices. Advertisers and publishers may obtain this information by using a browser API, which is a data stream into which they can tap.

When users visit a website that has signed up for the system, 3 of their “interest topics” are shared with the site and its advertisers, allowing the site to offer adverts that match the user’s interests, such as rock music or autos.

The themes will not cover sensitive topics such as gender or race, according to Google, and users will be able to explore the topics, delete those they don’t like, or turn off the option entirely. Every three weeks, the themes are switched.

In the United Kingdom, the Competition and Markets Authority and the Information Commissioner’s Office are investigating the proposals from the standpoints of competition and privacy (i.e., will the proposals disadvantage Google’s competitors in the provision of online advertisements, and will users’ data be abused). Rivals are also concerned that Google, which has stated that other aspects of the company, such as YouTube, would follow suit, will maintain a fundamental edge due to the vast quantity of consumer data it currently possesses. “We created these new suggestions in the open, soliciting input at every stage to ensure that they work for everyone, without preferential treatment or benefit to Google’s advertising products or Google’s sites,” says Vinay Goel, Google product director in charge of the sandbox project.

According to the Open Rights Group, a digital rights advocacy organization, Google’s recent proposals signify the end of the third-party cookie data gold rush. “Behavioral profiling in browsers might be an alternative to the present data-free-for-all method, in which your browsing activities are broadcast to thousands of unknown intermediaries,” says Mariano Delli Santi, legal and policy officer at ORG.

However, the ORG is concerned about several concerns, including the lack of a default opt-in position, which would result in a browser being excluded from the program unless they wanted to participate. According to the ORG, this is still behavioral profiling.

“We began the Privacy Sandbox effort to increase web privacy for consumers, and Topics will allow users to have better control over relevant advertisements without exposing sensitive characteristics like gender or ethnicity,” Goel says.

Nobody is happy, therefore everyone wins.

It is a significant shift in the digital advertising sector. Farhad Divecha, managing director of Accuracast, a UK digital marketing business, questions if the adjustment will please anybody. “Privacy activists will believe that this is still insufficient because there are reasons why this is still tracking behavior.” On the other hand, advertising will complain that you are taking things away from them. And you’re taking away my power to carefully target people I want to reach.”

According to Paul Banister, chief strategy officer of the US digital ad management business Cafe Media, the trend is still with privacy. “I believe the pendulum has fallen very far in favor of privacy here.” However, he adds, “since the topics system is easier to comprehend, ideally it will be more something that people feel comfortable about. And if consumers are pleased with the outcome, advertisers benefit since they are more supportive of how their data is being utilized.”

This might be only the beginning; as internet users grow more conscious of the trade-off between privacy and convenience, authorities continue to confront the marketing business. This accounts for a large portion of major tech earnings, the pendulum may swing even farther.


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