Google tries new tracking cookie alternative: Topics API

Mihai-Alexandru Cristea 09/03/2022 | 18:48

Online privacy is one of the most discussed concerns today. Whether you use a laptop, phone, or tablet, some portion of data about you gets shared with third parties. The way you switch sites, the sites you use, and how much time you stay on a site are only a few examples of what entities retrieve about online visitors.

 

In some cases, our browsing habits can end up creating extensive profiles about our lives. For instance, Google can likely determine your income, whether you own or rent an apartment, and what online content interests you. However, it is also possible to decide on political views and other sensitive details strictly from a list of your visited websites and search queries.

The center of all of this is the Google search engine, and just like every time, it has come up with a new technique to deal with user privacy. Third-party cookies are facing extinction, and Google has a responsibility to develop a better alternative. Let’s see whether the proposition is more promising than the one before.

What is Google up to this time?

Google still uses third-party cookies to facilitate the delivery of personalized ads. However, it has faced intense backlash from various privacy critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, and even Apple. Therefore, it has decided to get rid of cookies by 2023. Until then, it has tried to produce a privacy-focused alternative. With FLoC flopping, Google had to reinvent its strategy once again.

So, answering the heated backlash, Google has developed the Topics API. It has some potential benefits, as proposed by the tech giant. Let’s take a brief look at the API.

  • The API uses software built into the browser and keeps a check on user searches. Based on the user searches, it filters out five topics weekly that the user is interested in.
  • These topics are provided to the sites you visit, but not all of them. Topics API only shows three of your interests to the website and its advertising partners.
  • Topics or your interests captured by the Google API will be stored in your browser for three weeks. The unique thing is that the advertisers are shown three topics, one from each week.
  • Google believes that the Topics API is way easy to understand. The users will have the right to view the topics Google has shortlisted based on the user activity. As per Google, the users can also delete the suggested topics and stop tracking altogether.

Google believes that the Topics API is a better way to surf the web. However, others seem to disagree, claiming the limited effects of this proposal. While some improvements are noted, the overall idea needs more work.

Is it better than FLoC?

Topics API seems like a viable option, at least when compared to FLoC.

FLoC was an API proposed by Google to track users’ online activities for ad-targeting. The Federated Learning of Cohorts process divides users into various groups or cohorts based on their history and online content taste.

Though the cohorts have a lot of people in them, they can still be used to target specific people. How? As the user’s interest changes with time, the tracker can use the information (FLoC ID) to see which users have started moving out of the cohort or group. Based on that information, the tracker can make combinations and comparisons to determine which users have moved to another cohort.

Essentially, FLoC was just another way for ad providers to track their users. Considering the current attention to digital privacy, it is fair to say that the alternative must be superior to tracking cookies. Instead, experts notice that some ideas simply provide new ways for tracking users. Therefore, it is no wonder that many users turn to more privacy-focused browsers. For instance, the Brave browser blocks third-party cookies by default. Google has such options, but users need to do it manually.

Furthermore, more and more people turn to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to limit the data they share online. A reliable VPN download brings users a tool capable of encrypting their internet traffic and masking their IP address. For instance, one of the effects is that users will evade IP-based tracking, which random entities online won’t be able to learn your true location.

Will it be helpful?

As far as Google is concerned, it believes that Topics will improve FLoC in various ways. But, as per critics, it can still help trackers check the sites you visit and ID your devices. Yes, it will take some time for the websites to get to you, but they can.

What’s the status of Topics API?

Well, Google is about to release the testing version of Topics API in the next few months. It is not sure how well it will be received. But we can hope to see this feature out there in 2023. It was planned to be done in 2021 but was phased out until 2023.

Conclusion

Google has around 350 subjects to analyze the users, but they are expected to go up to 1000. So, it seems like Google has a lot of homework to do to make this work. Though critics are not in favor of Topics API, the testing results will enlighten everyone better. Only after that will we find out how things worked out for the tech giant.

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Mihai-Alexandru Cristea | 21/12/2023 | 14:13
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