In 2021, Google pulled the trigger on its grand plan to get rid of cookies — a fundamental but problematic part of the internet as we know it — and replace them with a new “privacy-first alternative” called Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. In theory, it was a great idea, but unfortunately, the scheme didn’t pan out nearly as well as Google had hoped.

Inhalt

  • The ins and outs of Google Topics
  • Is Google Topics better than FLoC? Sort of
  • By Google, for Google

Mired in regulatory troubles and industry backlash, Google aborted FLoC in January 2022 — but it’s not calling it quits just yet. It’s already back with a refreshed proposal called Topics, and it might be the company’s last shot at taking the reins of the “post-third-party cookie world” before its set 2023 deadline.

Ever since Google unveiled FLoC two years ago, it has hit one roadblock after another. Not only was the plan vehemently opposed by privacy advocates, internet companies, and advertisers, it also drew sharp scrutiny from regulators in the U.K. and the U.S., and it soon became evident that FLoC’s fate was written before it could launch publicly. Topics, which Google says is informed by “learning and widespread community feedback from earlier FLoC trials,” is supposed to be the silver bullet that addresses FLoC’s laundry list of concerns.

No one’s convinced if it can.

The ins and outs of Google Topics

The way Topics works is rather simple. With Topics, your browser keeps an eye on your web activity and determines what you’re interested in based on the sort of websites you browse the most. If you regularly read sports news, for instance, it assigns you a “Sports” category or “Travel & Transportation” if you’ve been planning a vacation. It pinpoints one new topic for you every week and maintains a list of five of your most recent ones — with a sixth random one to throw off anyone trying to identify you. Whenever you visit a website, Chrome shares a couple of your interests with its advertising partners so that they can show ads relevant to you.

Google Topics sounds like a win-win on the surface. It not only allows advertisers to target your interests, but it does so without compromising any of your personal information. Even the browsing information the browser uses to infer your topics never leaves your computer — a remarkably more private experience from the invasive nature of cookies, which are essentially little bits of data advertisers store on your devices to profile and follow you across the internet.

Google argues, in a statement to Digital Trends, that killing third-party cookies altogether as others like Apple have tried will leave advertisers no option but to turn to new shady, covert mechanisms to track people. It contends that building a privacy-first alternative like Topics can offer a middle ground.

And to make its case (again), Google has learned from its FLoC mistakes to better engineer Topics.

Is Google Topics better than FLoC? Sort of

In FLoC, Chrome grouped people with similar browsing patterns together and let advertisers target these groups instead of an individual’s set of interests. The problem was that this approach could potentially expose a group of vulnerable users. If a few people were looking for loans online, for instance, advertisers could easily reach those going through financial hardships.

Topics’ categories aren’t automated like they were in FLoC, and people are assigned from a list of topics curated by humans (which excludes categories such as race, sexuality, and income). Because of this, Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says Topics is more transparent and potentially lowers the risk of leaking sensitive information. Plus, Chrome users will have the option to opt out or delete any specific topic associated with them.

FLoC’s other big shortcoming was that because it swept your entire browsing history to learn your interests, it enabled advertisers to target you based on your every little movement on the internet — as opposed to cookies, which are more limited and only worked on the sites they were manually programmed on. Topics plugs into your browsing history as well, but Google has made a key modification to restrict access: Only the advertisers who are present on the site from where your topics are extracted can use them to target you.

By Google, for Google

Google Pitches Topics API to Replace Third-Party Cookies
That, however, could prove a double-edged sword for Google. Dr. Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of technology law and policy at Princeton University, says Topics’ revised system will favor the biggest advertisers and reward their far-reaching presence on the web with richer information about users — “which would benefit Google and disadvantage its competitors.”

Hier beginnt die Kekssuche von Google, wieder zu bröckeln. Die Themen, unabhängig von ihren Verbesserungen, wirft immer noch einen riesigen Interessenkonflikt auf. Google sucht das sehr zurückgehende Backbone der Branche, von wo er den größten Teil seiner Einnahmen verdient. Und von den Looks davon sind Lösungen wie Themen klug, um viele der Probleme von Cookies zu reparieren, während auch Google ein Bein auf den Wettbewerbern erteilt.

Werbetreibende sind nicht zufrieden mit der Aktualisierung von Themen oder deren Mengenbeschränkungen. Google fügt jede Woche nur ein neues Thema hinzu, und gegebenenfalls, wie schnell Online-Trends und Aufmerksamkeitsänderungen der Menschen, glauben Werbetreibende an, an der sie eine frische Charge erhalten, sie sind bereits veraltet. Der Verlust von Cookies von Drittanbietern wird geschätzt, dass der Inserentenumsatz von einem erstaunlichen 70 Prozent, und Themen, die viele glauben, zu senken, dass sie diese Figur verschlimmern könnten. Google hat noch nicht freigegeben, wie effektiv das Themensystem mit Floc verglichen wird.

Anudit Vikram, Chief Product Officer bei MediaMath, ein Ad-Tech-Unternehmen, sagt, dass er Zugang zu nur fünf Themen in einer bestimmten Woche hat, bietet „sehr wenig Wert für den Werbetreibenden“, und es wird „sehr wahrscheinlich die Wirksamkeit des Targetings stark abbauen“.

Einige fürchten, dass Google Google unfair in die Berge der Daten trägt, die er durch Themen extrahieren wird, um Menschen anzurufen. In einer Erklärung erzählte ein Firmensprecher digitale Trends, dass „Da die Privatsphäre Sandbox-Vorschläge entwickelt und umgesetzt werden,“ ihre Arbeit „nicht bevorzugte Behandlung oder Vorteil für die Werbeprodukte von Google oder an Google eigene Websites.“

Das prognostizierte Einsatz in den Umsatz wird letztendlich Werbetreibende gedrückt, um trotzdem auf Covert-Tracking-Mechanismen zurückzukehren, um das ursprüngliche Argument von Google für Themen für Themen zu rendieren. Darüber hinaus gibt Google zu, dass Websites immer noch möglich ist, Themen mit anderen Signalen zu korrelieren, um sensible Informationen und Profilbenutzer aufzusetzen.

Mayer unterhält drei Kriterien, um die sich entwickelnden Vorschläge von Google zu bewerten – und bis sie alle treffen, sind sie unwahrscheinlich, dass sie abheben, sagt er. Diese Fragen sind: Würden sie die Privatsphäre der Menschen respektieren, würden sie sie vor schattigen Tracking-Praktiken schützen, und würden sie einen wettbewerbsfähigeren Online-Anzeigewerbungsmarkt ermöglichen?

„Die Antwort auf diese Fragen für Floc waren Nein, Nein und Nein. Die Antworten auf diese Fragen zu den Themen API sind Nein, Nein und Nein „, sagte er.