Robert Triggs / Android Authority
After much hand-wringing and outright objections from the broader industry, Google is forging ahead with its Ad Topics API approach to web tracking and ads, bringing Chrome closer to advertisers. The change is disguised as a quietly rolling out privacy update for Chrome, almost as if Google is pre-empting a backlash. You may have seen the update pop-up on desktop and mobile already. If so, it might be a good time to consider a new web browser.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ad Topics and the ironically named Privacy Sandbox, the TDLR is that Google wants to move away from standard cookies to a more refined “interest-based” approach to tracking and serving ads. Essentially, the API builds up a profile of topics you’re interested in, personalizing the ads Google’s partners serve up without needing a personal Advertising ID. Firefox, Safari, and others have dented Google’s web advertising business by blocking third-party cookies. Ad Topics is essentially Google’s way to create a new ad revenue stream to replace the increasingly less viable existing model.
Google claims that the move to Topics will allow it to eventually disable traditional cookies in Chrome, clamp down on the amount of data collected by third parties, and merge users into larger, more anonymous groups presented to advertisers. This might be true and does sound better than the current laissez-faire approach with cookies. However, Google becomes the arbiter of your internet privacy while also relying on the platform to boost the bottom line of its lucrative ad business — a conflict of interest if there ever was one.
‘Privacy Sandbox’ makes Google the arbiter of your internet privacy while aiming to boost its bottom line. It’s time for a change.
Fortunately, Ad Topics is a Chrome-only approach to web tracking — the best way to opt out is to stop using Google’s browser. There’s a solid selection of privacy web browsers for Android, and it’s hard to go wrong with Firefox, which blocks plenty of tracking cookies by default. On desktop, other Chromium-based browsers, such as Microsoft’s Edge, don’t support the feature but will work with Chrome extensions, so there are plenty of alternatives.
If you’re still blinkered and wedded to Chrome, you can opt out under Settings > Ad privacy > Ad topics. At least for now, the chrome://settings/adPrivacy/interests Chrome flag offers the option to disable Topics on the desktop app. Eventually, Google will make Topics the default tracking method.
Unfortunately, replacing your web browser may not be enough to prevent Google from building up a Topics profile on you in the future. Google’s documentation highlights that Topics API classifiers will become part of the Android Open Source Project, aka the Android operating system you use on your phone. Privacy Sandbox spans both Google’s web and Android OS projects, albeit with slightly different purviews.
You can change browsers today, but Privacy Sandbox is being built into Android too.
For instance, the Android side of Privacy Sandbox doesn’t just derive topics from the sites you visit but from the apps you engage with as well. That’s right, Topics is shaping up to be a device-level tracking solution, making it far more intrusive than AdMob.
If there’s any upside, Google’s proposed SDK Runtime aims to help separate ad and app code. At the same time, the Protected Audience API plans to keep data on device rather than sharing it with external parties. But ultimately, this all serves to help Google build a more personalized picture of your mobile usage habits with which to sell ads.
Don’t be fooled by the Privacy Sandbox moniker; Google’s bottom line is the only winner from the move to Ad Topics. It’s a Hobson’s choice between today’s Wild West of cookies and slightly safer but more in-depth user tracking. The industry should instead be moving towards a more user-centric approach to online privacy and ad interaction. It’s time to opt out.
Are you ditching Chrome because of ad tracking?