A while back, Google said that it was on board with the idea that cookies--the little pieces of software code that websites use to do all sorts of things like keeping you logged in, and letting an advertiser know when you've clicked on its ad and then made a purchase--were bad. At least, the third-party kind--the ones that track your activity across the internet. Those types of cookies would be blocked in Chrome by 2023.
Google's real problem is that it can't just shut off third-party cookies entirely since that would be very bad for its competition and might look like it was leveraging the fact that not only does it control the world's largest advertising platform, but also its most popular web browser, Chrome. Considering the attention that regulators and lawmakers are paying to big tech companies, that was a non-starter.
So, Google said it would introduce an alternative known as Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. The short version is that Chrome would track your browsing history and use it to identify you as a part of a cohort of other users with similar interests. Advertisers would then target ads to the "I like to buy expensive ski outfits" cohort, or the "I just turned 50 and have two kids about to enter college and want to re-finance my mortgage" cohort.
That's not exactly how it works, but you get the basic idea. The thing is, no one likes FLoC. Privacy experts hate it because it's not actually more private just because the tracking and profiling happens in your browser. Advertisers and ad-tech companies don't like FLoC because, well, they like cookies. They'd mostly prefer Google just leave things alone since cookies are what let them know exactly when you click on an ad, put something in your cart, and buy it.
Now, Google is introducing an alternative it calls Topics. The idea is that Chrome will look at your browsing activity and identify up to five topics that it thinks you're interested in. When you visit a website, Chrome will show it three of those topics, with the idea that the site will then show you an ad that matches your interest.
Google says that Chrome will allow users to view the Topics they are associated with, and give them the ability to delete them. Google isn't asking users if they'd like to be part of Topics--it's just leveraging the fact that it owns Chrome to force users to be a part and then giving them a way to opt out if they want. That's great, except almost no one is ever going to do that. Google knows that.
More important, Google is fundamentally changing the way people think about the web browser. In theory, this ubiquitous piece of software is simply a window that allows you to access the virtually infinite expanse of content on the internet. Browsers competed to make the user experience better by supporting better standards and formats, and by adding additional utility--such as extension that allow you to block ads altogether.
For example, Safari and Brave allow you to block third-party cookies already, and they do so without any reservation that there should be some alternative way to target you with ads. Neither browser was planning to support FLoC.
"At root is Google's insistence on sharing information about people's interests and behaviors with advertisers, trackers, and others on the web that are hostile to privacy," Peter Snyder, who is Brave's director of privacy, said in a statement. "These groups have no business--and no right--to learn such sensitive information about you."
Ultimately, that change in the way Google is looking at Chrome--that it isn't a tool that serves its users, but is a tool that serves up users to advertisers, albeit in a slightly more privacy protective way--is a bad sign. It's also the best reason to finally ditch it altogether.