As part of its Privacy Sandbox initiative, Google wants to do away with cookies in the Chrome browser and introduce a new Topics API standard starting in 2024 that will allow advertisers to target ads based on common topics of interest to users instead of collecting cookies. Information about these topics will be collected based on browsing history.
According to Google, using the Topics API instead of cookies will avoid identifying users for ad tech providers and provide a safer and healthier online environment for everyone.
But the idea to reject cookies and transition to Topics API didn't appeal to the representatives of W3C (a division of the World Wide Web Consortium, which deals with the standardization of websites), and they asked Google not to continue the development of Topics API in its current form. The developers of Firefox and Safari browsers also didn't support Google on this issue.
Cookies are small files that are stored on your device and contain settings and other information about the web pages you've visited. Through these files, websites remember information about your visits, and advertisers can track you and target ads that might interest you. For example, if you visit a website that sells bicycles, you will be shown more advertisements for that site and other sites with similar themes.
Topics API is a more confidential alternative to cookies. With the help of this technology, the browser will use the browsing history to determine which topics you're interested in this week. For example, you may be interested in topics such as fitness or travel. Information about these topics will be collected on your device without bringing in any external servers, including Google servers. They will only be stored for 3 weeks, after which the old themes will be deleted.
The themes, Google tells us, are selected so as to exclude sensitive categories like gender or race.
When you visit a participating site, Topics will select just 3 topics – one topic in the last 3 weeks – to share with the site and its advertising partners. Ads will then be shown to you based on those topics, and ad providers will not be able to use covert tracking methods like digital fingerprinting (aka fingerprinting) to show you relevant content.
You'll also have the ability to manage the Topics API, see the topics that have been defined for you, and remove the ones you don't like. There will also be an option to disable the feature completely.
At first glance, the Topics API seems like a very interesting and promising idea. However, the W3C, as noted above, has disapproved of the idea.
“The proposed API continues the policy of inappropriate surveillance on the Internet, and we do not want it to develop further,” Amy Guy of W3C's Technical Architecture Group (TAG) wrote in a post on GitHub.
The goal of the Topics API, she said, is to pass data about web users' interests to third parties while preserving those same users' privacy to show them targeted ads, and to protect users from unwanted tracking and profiling. TAG, however, believes that the Topics API does not achieve these goals.
As Guy noted, the Topics API allows a third party to process and aggregate user data to create profiles based on that data, which can be used to discriminatorily customize the content, such as choosing which ads to show to groups of users based on sensitive and protected characteristics such as a person's race.
Google, however, disagrees with this assertion.
According to the, the API will significantly improve privacy over third-party cookies, and we are continuing to develop it.
Developers of the Firefox and Safari browsers also did not support the Topics API. Moreover, they are blocking third-party cookies as privacy features.
Robin Berjon, head of standards and governance at research firm Protocol Labs and a W3C board member, is confident that Topics APIs have little chance of adoption at this point.
“No other browser vendor wants it, and the leading authority on web architecture has rejected it,” he said.
Despite objections and criticism from the W3C and many others, Google can still continue to develop the Topics API and implement it: after all, the company doesn't have to adhere to imposed web standards, and it can take years to develop a new alternative.
Google does have at least one collaborator today: the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority are currently working with Google on a plan to remove third-party cookies and other tracking features from the Chrome browser.