Google has decided to change course but cannot find a way out of the quagmire it has got itself into. The Internet giant is looking for a replacement for the third-party cookie system it has been using for years in its browser, Google Chrome, which has millions of users around the world. After presenting Google FLoC and receiving a barrage of criticism, the company discards this idea and announces Topics, its new bet in which it gives greater control to the user.
Being able to veto all the topics you want in the browser settings or prevent web pages from collecting too much information about the user are some of the improvements that the company has integrated into Topics. This new method will be tested soon, although there are still details to be worked out.
With Privacy Sandbox, Google’s goal for 2020 is to develop new technologies that protect “people’s privacy on the Internet and provide companies and developers with tools to build thriving digital businesses, keeping the web open and accessible to all”. An ambitious project, which aims to maintain Google’s leadership in the web advertising business, but which is under investigation by the European Union. In the third quarter of 2021, the Mountain View company earned 53 billion dollars.
What are cookies?
This reinvention involves saying goodbye to the classic cookies that, for those who need to refresh their memory, consist of files that websites send to the browser memory on each device (cell phones, computers, tablets…) when they receive your visit. They have different functions, but the most controversial is to record your interests to offer you advertising accordingly and those are third-party cookies.
Other browsers such as Safari, Firefox, Brave and Tor have eliminated them from their services, but Google is resisting until it finds a solid alternative. Even from the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), they are described as a system in terminal phase, “no one should mourn their death”.
What is FLoC?
With this scenario, Google sentences them for 2023 and in January 2021, presents FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), a technology that consists of grouping users into anonymous cohorts according to their tastes and interests. Each cohort of more than 1,000 users has a unique identifier presented by the browser of one of those users when visiting a page. Only the last week’s tastes would be recorded and advertisers have access to the cohort data, but not to the individuals behind it.
This proposal was not particularly liked, digital cybersecurity experts denounced that it was possible, through reverse engineering, to discover who is hiding behind a cohort. In addition, the tags could refer to sensitive topics, such as race, gender, sexual tastes or political tendencies. Google has generally tried to correct these details in its new attempt, Topics.
How Topics works
After this review of the Mountain View giant’s moves in the last two years, it is time to unravel Topics. Says the company, Topics was developed based on what they learned from the feedback they received when they announced FLOC, namely criticism.
In this case, your current likes and interests are still collected, but overriding the cohort format, instead a series of Topics are applied to each user. The Chrome browser, locally, that is, from the device itself without the intervention of an external server, analyzes browsing habits and catalogs them into a series of themes, from sports, travel, to technology.
Every week five topics are assigned and every three weeks the selected topics are eliminated to generate a constant renewal in the personal tastes that Google collects from your search history. What interests you today may not necessarily still interest you two months from now.
But before this routine, as a user you will have the possibility to monitor this long list of topics in the browser settings to remove those you don’t want to appear in. This is the main novelty of Topics over FLoC, giving people control over the information the browser collects regarding their Internet usage.
The company promises that the browser will avoid sensitive topics so as not to show advertising to people based on their race or gender and other more personal topics, one of the most important fixes. Google Topics can currently work with 300 different topics, but the technical description given by Google suggests that this number could increase to “a few thousand topics” that users should filter in the settings.
The next step is for pages to receive information on those chosen topics. When you enter a page that supports the Topics API, the browser shares with the website three topics that correspond to your searches from the last three weeks, “one topic from each of the last three weeks”. From the website they must decide whether to share that information about your interests with their advertisers to show you ads you might be interested in.
Topics problems in sight
Google claims in its statement that Topics offers advertisers an option that does not involve covert tracking techniques, such as browser fingerprinting. This method is used to track the user by collecting system data: browser type and version, screen resolution, operating system, languages or time zone and others. The data creates a unique ‘fingerprint’ with which to track the user throughout their online journey.
However, it is still possible that sites calling the API could combine or correlate topics with other signals to infer sensitive information outside of their intended use,” Google says in its description. They acknowledge that they still need to fix some compromised aspects of this method, for example, it would still be possible for a page to compile a list of topics relevant to a user and through them get sensitive information.
In addition to Topics’ potential weaknesses with user privacy, from the other side, the advertising side, companies may not see benefits from this change. Paul Bannister, co-founder of ad management company CafeMedia, explains to The Wired, that Google Topics may be too broad to target ad campaigns to people who are truly interested in buying the product being advertised.