Google broke the internet last year with its plan to break the internet last year.
Of course, I’m talking about FLoC, Google’s poorly named plan to kill off the third-party cookie and allow advertisers to target “cohorts” of anonymous users instead. It managed to piss off everyone, with privacy groups calling it invasive and the ad industry calling it anticompetitive.
Yesterday, Google killed off FLoC, announcing it’s replacing it with a shiny new ad-targeting tool called Topics. The idea behind Topics is pretty simple. It’s an API that uses people’s browsing history to infer their interests in broad topics like, say, fitness. The API will share a rotating subset of those interests with publishers, who can then use them to serve targeted ads on their sites. Users can also delete topics they don’t want shared in what Google argues is a much better deal for privacy.
But if Google was expecting a standing ovation from FLoC’s critics, it might have been disappointed. The company’s plan for Topics has, so far, gotten something between a lukewarm and icy response from the very people who called for FLoC’s demise.
“It just seems like rearranging deck chairs on the sinking ship of targeted ads,” said Justin Brookman, director of Consumer Privacy at Consumer Reports.
“There’s no way to spin this as anything other than a new privacy violation being built into your browser,” said Bennett Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
There’s no doubt Topics is a slight improvement over FLoC, Cyphers and Brookman acknowledged, but it hardly satisfies the growing movement calling for the eradication of behavioral ad targeting altogether. That includes not just advocates, but lots of Democrats in Congress and lawmakers in Europe who have recently pushed for legislation that would ban targeted ads.
In its announcement, Google emphasized the importance of giving people control over the topics that advertisers use to target them. "Because Topics is powered by the browser, it provides you with a more recognizable way to see and control how your data is shared, compared to tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies," the post read.
But privacy hawks argue that user controls can be the enemy of offering people true privacy in the first place. “It's just not feasible for someone to track and control their Topics on a week-by-week basis: Who would do that?!” Brookman said.
As it happens, Facebook pitched a similar proposal last year but changed course due to privacy concerns. “If automatic inferences are returned based on behavioral data, there is a risk of sensitive information disclosure. I think this is a fair point,” Facebook engineer Ben Savage wrote in an online discussion group regarding the proposal.
But just because the privacy world hates Topics doesn’t mean the ad world loves it. It may not kill ad targeting, but it will cut ad-tech firms and publishers off from a whole lot of web browsing data they currently have access to — data Google, which owns the biggest browser in the world, will continue to have access to.
That raises tricky questions about what Topics means for competition. “Google isn’t going to use it,” said James Rosewell, director of Movement for an Open Web, a group that’s pushing back against Google’s privacy efforts. “Topics are for rivals. [Google] is still discriminating against rivals.”
Google’s decision to kill FLoC didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes at a time when Google is facing mounting scrutiny of both its privacy practices and its approach to competition. And at least some of that scrutiny has focused directly on FLoC.
In addition to all of the public backlash, the U.K.’s competition regulator has also been investigating Google’s privacy plans since last year, after Rosewell filed a complaint accusing the tech giant of trying to stifle competition through FLoC and other privacy changes. That prompted Google to delay its plans to kill the third-party cookie this year, postponing the change to 2023. And just this week, hundreds of publishers in Germany, including Protocol parent company Axel Springer, filed a similar complaint to Europe’s top competition watchdog, alleging that Google’s privacy moves violate EU competition law.
In its blog post announcing Topics, Google said it’s been working with the U.K. competition authority to “ensure our proposals are developed in a way that works for the entire ecosystem.” Time will tell if regulators think Topics meets the mark.