Google Topics: Privacy Protection or Smoke and Mirrors?

· 4 min read
Google Topics: Privacy Protection or Smoke and Mirrors?
Photo by Mitchell Luo / Unsplash

As third-party cookies are gradually being phased out, the digital advertising industry is seeking new solutions to maintain targeted advertising and measurement capabilities while respecting user privacy. Google’s proposed Topics API has gained attention as a potential replacement for third-party cookies, but it has also raised concerns about privacy and Google’s market dominance.

A Shift in the Digital Advertising Landscape

The digital advertising industry has long relied on third-party cookies for targeting, measuring, and preventing ad fraud. However, with increasing scrutiny on privacy and competition, Google announced its plan to block third-party cookies in its Chrome browser by 2023. This decision has significant implications for advertisers, publishers, and ad tech companies, as Chrome is the most widely used browser in the world.

In response to the impending demise of third-party cookies, Google introduced the Privacy Sandbox project, aiming to develop browser-based open standards to replace cookies. The project’s goal is to minimize the information shared between websites and advertisers, storing more user data on the individual’s device rather than Google’s servers. The Privacy Sandbox project consists of multiple APIs catering to different needs, such as targeted advertising and conversion measurement.

Introducing the Topics API

Google’s initial proposal for replacing third-party cookies was the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) API, which aimed to group users into cohorts based on their interests and browsing history. However, FLoC faced criticism for potential privacy issues and the possibility of browser fingerprinting. As a result, Google has now proposed the Topics API as an alternative solution.

The Topics API aims to balance user privacy with personalized advertising by assigning users to broader interest categories based on their 3-week browsing history. These categories, such as “fitness” or “travel & transportation,” are determined by the Chrome browser and stored on the user’s device. Each week, the browser selects five topics per user (including one random topic for added privacy) which can be used by advertisers for targeting purposes.

Privacy Concerns with the Topics API

Critics argue that the Topics API does not adequately address the core privacy issues associated with FLoC. By determining which categories are considered sensitive or non-sensitive, Google assumes the role of deciding what information is appropriate to share with advertisers – a responsibility that should lie with the individual user.

While Google claims that users can review, delete, and opt out of Topics, studies have shown that users rarely change default settings, and many may not even be aware of these options. Additionally, Google’s employees have been reported to struggle with understanding privacy settings in the company’s software.

The Impact on Competition and Market Dominance

The Topics API has been criticized for potentially reinforcing Google’s advertising monopoly. Large advertisers, such as Google, are present on a majority of websites, allowing them to access more user interest data through Topics. In contrast, smaller advertisers appear on fewer sites, putting them at a disadvantage in terms of data access and targeting capabilities.

Google’s market dominance and influence over the future of online advertising has attracted regulatory attention. The UK’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) is investigating whether the Privacy Sandbox project may stifle competition and strengthen Google’s market power. German publishers have also filed a complaint with the European Commission, citing concerns about Google’s strategy to phase out cookies.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of the Topics API

The Topics API does offer some privacy improvements compared to FLoC, such as the use of broader interest categories and the inclusion of a random topic for each user. However, these improvements may not go far enough to address the fundamental privacy issues raised by critics.

Advertisers and publishers have expressed concerns that the Topics API’s less granular approach to interest categories may limit the specificity of ad targeting and potentially reduce ad prices. Ad tech executives are also seeking clarity on the control they will have over user data when integrating the Topics API.

Preparing for the Post-Cookie Era

As the industry moves away from third-party cookies, advertisers, publishers, and ad tech companies must adapt by focusing on collecting consented first-party user data. This shift presents both challenges and opportunities for the various players in the online advertising ecosystem.

To navigate the changing landscape, all stakeholders must work together and be prepared to adapt as new solutions emerge. Engaging with Google’s projects and participating in the development process is crucial for shaping the future of online advertising in a way that balances privacy concerns with business needs.

The Future of Privacy and Advertising

Google has been testing the Topics API since the first quarter of 2022 with “A small percentage of traffic” will soon see the initial testing of Google Chrome Topics API go live on July 1. , with more details expected soon. The industry’s reception of Topics and the API’s performance in these tests will be crucial for determining its viability as a replacement for third-party cookies.

As the digital advertising industry grapples with the challenge of reconciling targeted advertising with privacy concerns, the Topics API represents just one potential solution. The ongoing development of Privacy Sandbox and other emerging technologies will shape the future of online advertising and the balance between privacy and personalization.


While Google Topics may appear to address privacy concerns and limit third-party data collection, it is important to recognize that Google retains comprehensive knowledge of user activities. Users should be cautious not to be misled by the privacy claims surrounding Topics. The concept raises valid concerns about centralized knowledge, manipulation, and the limited form of freedom in the online world. As consumers, it is crucial to remain vigilant and informed about the true implications

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