Google’s Move From FLoC to Topics API
Almost a year ago, I wrote an article on Google’s FLoC — an algorithm that was supposed to replace third-party cookies and, according to Google’s dubious claims, protect user privacy when it came to targeted ads. If you’ve read that one or, in fact, almost any article about FLoC, you know it was torn apart as an idea, ever since it was first suggested. So it wasn’t really a huge surprise when Google announced FLoC was “going to a farm upstate” and they would abandon that anti-privacy idea.
Another thing that wasn’t a huge surprise? The fact that Google immediately launched into a very similar venture, albeit with the non-birdy name of Topics API. How does this one look and will it hatch or be cooked like its predecessor? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Topics API?
Understanding Topics isn’t very difficult because it’s all in the name — the API would trace a user’s web browsing activity and classify their interests based on what sites they visit and how they interact with them. Using that data, it assigns each user three topics/interests, ranging from “hockey” to “zoology”, although the latter might be a little harder to find ads for. The assigned topics determine what kind of ads a user gets and are supposedly only determined on your device, meaning Google’s servers won’t be seeing what you’re into. Every time you visit a website, the topics will “show” the interests to the advertising algorithms, using one topic per week. So if in week 1 you looked into hunting, ballet dance and pancakes, the advertiser will only be served one of those. Hopefully, the pancake one.
The interest data will supposedly be refreshed every three weeks, meaning ad targeting will keep up with your ever-changing interests. Google promises that data for past weeks will be immediately deleted, although that kind of claim requires some proof, of course. Not that you shouldn’t trust the giant conglomerate that has been gathering data on you for decades but… Let’s see how it works if it ever makes it to general testing.
One of the ways Google plans to earn back user trust is by giving Chrome users (and only them) the ability to see which topics they were assigned and delete them as they see fit. That way you can be included in helping nefarious algorithms serve you ads to make you buy things and refine their methods. The project is only being talked about for now as even true develop testing hasn’t begun yet, though Google was touting its plan to get rid of third-party cookies by 2023.
Is It Better Than FLoC?
Surprisingly, yes. It is genuinely less invasive so it is a step up from FLoC, points for Google on that one. However, it’s far from perfect as Topics still collects user data to profile them and could lead to advertisers ID’ing a user on their own, which means there are significant privacy gaps to fill. But that may be a pipe dream since Google is not going to abandon targeting ads altogether, relying on revenue from them to finance the company’s other operations.
Ideally, Google would keep its promises to make Topics controlled by the user, so you could scrub the interests section clean whenever you feel like it. Or, rather, ideally it would expand that functionality to all browsers, not just Chrome, which is notoriously not great for privacy. If that happens, Topics will remain a problematic tool while making a genuinely notable step in the right direction. In fact, the whole idea of “serve ads based on interests” method could be performed in a less intrusive way akin to how non-targeted ads work. If a user lands on a website that’s all about hockey, it stands to reason that they are interested in hockey. That can be inferred without any data collection, based solely off of the data stated on the website. Using that, you could effectively serve ads to every visitor of that site without limiting their privacy or collecting that private data, even temporarily.
It’s too early to give Google genuine praise for killing off an awful idea and replacing it with a so-so one but I’ll give the company some credit for at least reading the room. The consistent pressure of privacy watchdogs and consumers has had an effect, a positive one, and it’s interesting to see how the company will proceed. Topics has some groundwork for a better ad algorithm, one that’s not invasive and would be accepted by users. It is now up to Google to take that foundation and build a solid product on top of it.