What's the deal with Google Topics?

Joe Bosso 1 Feb 2022

At first glance, this initiative seems like a win for privacy advocates. But how will things pan out over time?

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has recently announced that it has a new idea to replace tracking cookies. Previously, they had floated the idea of FLoC which they claimed would increase privacy. However this was not accepted by privacy advocates, as we previously discussed in a separate post.

Their new idea is the Topics API, which will assign users five interests per week based on their browsing history. These topics would stay on your device and would never be shared with any third parties (like cookies are often shared today). Instead, the topics would stay on your browser for three weeks and would only be shared with a website you are visiting and its advertising partners. 

Currently, there are about 350 topics, although Google plans to keep adding to this number. Topics are akin to categories of interest, so one might be “sports” and other might be “health and wellness.” If a user opts out of the Topics API, uses Incognito Mode, or has cleared their cookies or topics, the list of topics returned to the website will be empty.

Google believes that Topics is easier for their users to control than cookies. Often, you may have no idea where your information has been shared as you browse the internet. Topics lets you see what categories Google is sharing with websites and their advertisers and remove those you don't want to share or to turn off the topics feature.

Much remains to be seen, as Google is still gathering feedback on Topics and will begin testing it during the coming months. It's a part of a larger project called the Privacy Sandbox, which is designed to help Google compete with competitors’  more privacy-focused web browsers without hurting its advertising business. 

At first glance, this initiative seems like a win for privacy advocates, as it gives more control to the users. Topics appears to be a response to the criticism of FLoC that membership in large amounts of groups could be used as a data point to identify someone.

In our opinion, though, there are still a few important questions that need to be answered. For example, what is there to stop advertisers making a profile about users leveraging the interests from Topics? It appears that advertisers with a presence across multiple sites could continue to collect data as with cookies. Just because Topics removes the data points after a few weeks does not mean that the companies they have shared information will. Those companies might even be able to sell or share that data with other parties. In other words, putting the users in control of the Topics that are shared may end up being just for show. Google could track people's interests over time and build a pretty good profile for individual users. Until more information is available, this is something that we will continue to keep an eye on.

If Google wants to put consumer privacy above its profits, then they need to consider dropping user tracking altogether. While Topics may sound like a step in the right direction, the reality is that at this point, we can't say for certain.

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