Google Topics: MOW’s in-depth analysis

Google has announced a new “privacy” solution for digital advertising called “Topics”, another
part of its Privacy Sandbox proposal that stands to fundamentally change the nature of the web
as we know it.

Continuing with Google’s wider goal of eliminating publishers’ ability to communicate with their
partners using third-party cookies, Google introduced Topics in the wake of broad criticism
aimed at Google’s FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts).

From the Movement for an Open Web’s perspective, however, there’s little substantive
improvement in the newly announced Topics that address the main criticisms and reservations
regarding FLoC.

FLoC was criticised on the basis that Google merely substituted its own datagathering stream for the competitive solutions that help publishers operate and grow their business, giving Google exclusive control over a key function media owners rely on to provide ad-funded access to their properties.

Impact on publishers

Topics, like FLoC, replaces the collection of innocuous cross-site data enabled by third-party
cookies, with its own generation of interest attributes from user activity.

This massively truncates the value of publishers’ inventory, typically decreasing their revenues by 70% according the UK Competition Markets Authority

Instead of accessing a healthy range of interests, publishers and advertisers will be forced to rely on a reduced list of topics Google’s software generates and assigns to each Chrome browser, based on that user’s previous browsing activity over the most recent three weeks.

Questions about regulation

As a self-styled “evolution of FLOC”, Topics unsurprisingly retains many of the glaring issues of
its predecessor – but with the added complication that Google appears to be using Topics as a
means to circumvent its proposed obligations to competition authorities.

By shifting Topics outside of The Privacy Sandbox, Google appears to have subtly tried to push its poor replacement for third-party cookies beyond the scrutiny and oversight of regulators, allowing Google to continue with its anti-competitive practises unperturbed.

This is just another example of Google’s playbook in action. In the event you are challenged,
change the name of everything and pretend it is different.

Topics is another behavioural interest based attribute system (like FLoC) under another name, just altered enough to try another run to substitute its own B2B advertising solutions for those offered by rivals.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t allow competitors to accurately measure the accuracy of these interests nor the information required to estimate how well they work for various different marketers who compete
in each market “category”.

So crucially, it doesn’t do what cookies do.

An inadequate replacement for cookies

Google has no plans to replace the core components of cookies in any form, and this is another
example of tossing out an inferior and gutted alternative to the rest of the internet.

Google’s plans to interfere with the sharing of innocuous cross-site data and ad performance information
that many companies rely on to operate and grow their businesses remain unchanged.

To cast out any doubt as to whether Topics is fit for the purpose of replacing third-party cookie – as an illustration Google has made no commitment to exclusively using this technology to
monetize its own ad inventory.

In contrast, Google has committed to the CMA it will continue using user identifiers, often stored in cookies, as well as it Customer Match to share cross-site information to improve the monetization of its own inventory.

In short, Topics is a solution Google deems fit only for its rivals.

The Movement for an Open Web opposes any and all attempts by trillion-dollar
companies to unilaterally restrict competition across the open web for their own benefit.
Google’s proposed changes to rivals’ cookies and user data collection are a prime
example of this – and will be bad for consumers and competitors. If you want to help
oppose these kinds of anti-competitive tech practices, consider joining the Movement for
an Open Web.

To find out more about membership or for other enquiries, contact Media@movementforanopenweb.com

Header image: Richy Great on Unsplash (licensed for use under the Unsplash license)