Google’s cookie alternative may finally arrive, but is it really a privacy-first solution?

Google’s cookie alternative may finally arrive, but is it really a privacy-first solution?

After years of waiting, Google’s vision of the “cookieless future” underpinning online advertising may finally be revealed.

Topics API – Google’s cookie-alternative offered as part of its Privacy Sandbox – will be made available when a new version of its Chrome web browser launches on 12 July. After a series of delays, the Alphabet company has stated its intentions to get rid of cookies fully by July 2024, and is touting Topics API as a privacy-first solution to enable advertisers to track users’ interests and target them with ads.

However, whether Topics API will really protect users’ privacy is hotly debated. Following a request from Google last March for an “early design review” of the solution, the W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG), a web standards body, concluded that the solution failed to protect users from “unwanted tracking and profiling” while maintaining “inappropriate surveillance on the web.” The group went as far as to say it did “not want to see it proceed further.”

In May, senior data scientist and software engineer for ad platform Criteo Alexandre Gilotte argued that Topics API was open to abuse through ‘fingerprinting’ that could be used to identify users.

In response to these concerns, Google appears to be asking for goodwill, having asked developers not to abuse the tracking mechanism, saying: “We’ve added a requirement on Chrome that developers enrol to use the API and to attest that they won’t abuse the API.” While the tech giant acknowledges this is “not a technical solution”, it believes Topics API “goes a long way to addressing this problem.” According to Google, the enrolment process will verify the entities calling the APIs and gather the data needed to properly configure and use them.

Is ‘slightly less creepy’ good enough?

Luke Regan, managing partner UK of digital performance marketing agency DAC, is one voice who doubts that Topics API represents a “privacy-first solution.” Speaking to The Media Leader, Regan said: “Yes, it is slightly less creepy than storing every last behavioural detail about someone centrally.

“However, as Apple and others have pointed out, even your topical interests could be sensitive and actually it’s not too difficult to track back to an individual. Engagement rings, children’s names and mortgage calculators all seem innocuous enough topics — but equally they can reveal more about a person then they might normally consent to share.”

Kevin Joyner, director of data strategy at digital agency Croud, is more optimistic, saying: “Yes, it’s a privacy-first solution — although that’s not the same as it being 100% watertight privacy protecting — and some evidence of it being privacy-first is the delays we’ve seen. First-party ID sharing solutions are questionable; Privacy Sandbox seems (more or less still only on paper) to be the real deal.”

An anti-competitive move from Google?

Google’s approach to privacy and with Topics API also drew criticism from the Movement for an Open Web, whose spokesman told The Media Leader: “An Open Web is a web that respects people’s privacy choices. From fully anonymous to completely identifiable. Everyone is different. We’re pro-privacy and choice. Mandatory APIs, like Topics, restrict choice and competition. A competitive market with open and independently verifiable privacy features will enhance competition.”

The group said the solution seeks to replace an open and interoperable system with one that is closed and proprietary, without improving privacy in practice. The MOW spokesman added: “How many websites already use ‘Sign in with Google’? How is that more private? Privacy Sandbox is really about Google retaining control over people’s intimate data whilst using Topics to restrict interoperability for others.”

Plugging the cookie gap

Marketers are also thinking about whether Topics API can plug the gap left by cookies. Paul Thompson, country manager at contextual advertising solutions provider Seedtag, said that he “trust[s] Google on the privacy of the Topics API, given that the data doesn’t leave its host device”. However, while Thompson trusts the effectiveness of the solution, he added that marketers may struggle with the ‘three-week window’ required for Topics to refresh and provide information about users interests.

Despite this, Thompson is not concerned about whether Topics API can be an adequate replacement for cookies, commenting: “I don’t think there is a gap to be plugged by cookies anymore. Most of the internet is already no longer addressable via cookies, and Google itself has spoken about how cookies’ performance is eclipsed by probabilistic methods. “

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