The Publisher Brief: The Industry Responds to Google Topics

A year on from its reveal, Google Topics might be ready for a wider audience, but that doesn’t mean it won’t face a few roadblocks on the way. In this Publisher Brief update, we explore the industry’s response to Topics in 2023. 

The Headlines

  • The ever-shifting conversation about the future of online consumer privacy continues with industry concerns raised about the Google Topics API, first announced back in January 2022.
  • Google requested a review from the W3C's Technical Architecture Group (TAG) in March 2022, which was finally answered with a firm “no” in January 2023. Representatives of WebKit and Mozilla have also raised concerns.

  • Despite TAG stating directly that they do not approve of Topics, a Google representative responded in early February 2023 that they feel “Topics is a tremendous step forward in web privacy despite its trade-offs”.

Google Topics: A quick recap

For the full rundown of exactly what Google Topics is we recommend reading our dedicated article The Publisher Brief: Google Topics, but here’s a quick recap. 

Google Topics is a privacy-preserving API developed by Google as part of its Privacy Sandbox. Announced in January 2022, Topics assigns publisher websites with interest groups from a pool of 350 “topics” such as sports, books, music, etc. Chrome will then determine a user’s top five topics based on the sites they’ve visited most in the last week. These top five topics are stored locally for three weeks. This information is not stored by Google and users have the option to edit, delete, or disable their topics at any time.

When a user visits a publisher site which is using the Topics API, it will share the last three weeks' topics with advertisers to be used for ad targeting. 

“We do not want to see it proceed further”

Shortly after the announcement of Google Topics, the team behind the Privacy Sandbox initiative made a request to the Technical Architecture Group (TAG), a division of the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, for a design review of the API. 

On March 25, 2022, Josh Karlin posted to TAG’s Github repository, asking for a design review of the Google Topics API, along with a host of additional information around how Topics will protect or obfuscate Personally Identifiable Information (PII). 

After a couple of updates within the Github thread over the year, the Google team finally received a (fairly unequivocal) response from a member of TAG in January 2023. 

On January 12, 2023, Amy Guy of TAG responded stating that the group had met to discuss the Topics proposal and had decided that “the proposed API appears to maintain the status quo of inappropriate surveillance on the web, and we do not want to see it proceed further”.

The main points of contention TAG has with Topics are:

  • Websites can still use an API call to derive the browsing habits of an individual.
  • Users do not have control over their information being shared and are not informed in real-time of the data shared or to whom.
  • Topic groups could be used to make inferences about a user’s protected characteristics.
  • The Topics API is currently not browser-agnostic, working exclusively in Chrome.

Does Google Topics have a future?

Following TAG’s explanation of its objections to Topics – in addition to other concerns raised by fellow industry bodies Webkit (Safari) and Mozilla (Firefox) – things went quiet for a month or so.  

On February 9, 2023, Michael Kleber of Google responded to TAG, opening the door to further discussions about improvements to the Topics API, but certainly not suggesting that Google’s plans for the Privacy Sandbox solution have changed in any material way.
In the response, Google specifically references the concerns of Webkit and Mozilla, suggesting that Topics will not be compatible with these browsers in its current form – but that the team hopes that all browsers will at some point converge with a singular approach to user privacy.

Moving on to the future of Google Topics, the team was categorical in stating that they plan to continue development of the API: “The Topics API will remain part of the collection of APIs that we expect the ads ecosystem to test during 2023“

The wider context here, of course, is that Google still plans to deprecate the third-party cookie in 2024. Something has to fill the gap, and that’s the Privacy Sandbox.

The Google team left the conversation very much open: “We are happy to make the case for why we continue to feel that replacing 3rd-party cookies with Topics is a tremendous step forward in web privacy despite its trade-offs.”

On February 13, 2023, the co-chair of TAG replied, stating that TAG is “definitely interested in further discussion on the details which we hope can lead to improvements in the areas we've outlined.

So it certainly sounds like there’s more discussion to come and – with luck – some convergence between Google and other industry bodies on how Topics can move forward. 

Should publishers change their Topics game plan?

With questions raised over whether or not Topics truly will solve user identity in a cookieless world, should you change your strategy as a publisher?

In short, probably not.

With Chrome’s browser dominance holding strong at around 65% market share, there’s no question that the Privacy Sandbox will be something of a north star for online identity going forward – and Topics is seemingly set to be a key part of that.

But the best advice, as always, is to take a multi-pronged approach to identity.

The Topics API is certainly worth considering as part of your ad stack, but so are more open web initiatives such as Seller Defined Audiences – along with the many third-party alternative IDs already hitting the market

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