Google has rolled out a new ad platform in its Chrome browser that tracks users’ web browsing history and generates a list of topics that are shared with advertisers. The feature, called the Privacy Sandbox, has been widely opposed by privacy advocates, regulators, and other browser makers, who argue that it violates users’ privacy and gives Google an unfair advantage in the online advertising market.
What is the Privacy Sandbox?
The Privacy Sandbox is Google’s response to the decline of third-party cookies, which are small pieces of data that websites use to track users across the web and serve them personalized ads. Third-party cookies have been blocked by other browsers such as Safari and Firefox for years, and Google has announced plans to phase them out in Chrome by 2023.
However, Google, which makes most of its revenue from online advertising, claims that removing third-party cookies without a replacement would harm the web ecosystem and lead to more intrusive forms of tracking. Therefore, Google has proposed a set of alternative technologies that aim to preserve users’ privacy while still enabling targeted advertising. One of these technologies is the Topics API, which is part of the Privacy Sandbox.
The Topics API works by analyzing the web pages that users visit and assigning them to one or more topics, such as sports, travel, or entertainment. These topics are then stored in the browser and shared with websites that request them. Websites can then use these topics to show users relevant ads without knowing their individual identities or browsing history.
Google claims that this approach is more privacy-friendly than third-party cookies, because it does not allow websites to track users across the web or link their topics to their personal information. Google also says that users can control their topics and opt out of the feature at any time.
Why is it controversial?
The Privacy Sandbox has faced criticism from various stakeholders, who have raised concerns about its impact on users’ privacy, competition, and choice.
- Privacy advocates have argued that the Topics API still enables mass surveillance of users’ online behavior and preferences, and that it does not prevent advertisers from inferring users’ personal information from their topics. They have also pointed out that Google has not provided sufficient details or evidence on how the Topics API protects users’ privacy or how it complies with data protection laws.
- Regulators have expressed doubts about Google’s motives and intentions behind the Privacy Sandbox, and have launched investigations into its potential antitrust implications. They have accused Google of using its dominant position in the browser market to impose its own standards and preferences on the web, and of creating a walled garden that favors its own advertising products and services over those of its rivals.
- Other browser makers have rejected Google’s proposals and have refused to implement them in their own browsers. They have argued that Google’s solutions are not compatible with their own privacy principles and values, and that they do not address the root causes of online tracking and advertising. They have also proposed alternative solutions that do not rely on user profiling or tracking, such as contextual advertising or user consent.
How can users opt out?
Google has started rolling out the Topics API to most Chrome users in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines. Users in these regions should see a pop-up when they launch Chrome, informing them that the feature has been enabled and giving them the option to disable it.
Users can also opt out of the Topics API at any time by following these steps:
- Open Chrome and click on the three-dot menu icon in the top right corner.
- Select Settings > Privacy and security > Privacy Sandbox.
- Under Topics API, toggle off Use Topics API for ads personalization.
Users who opt out of the Topics API will still see ads on websites, but they will not be based on their topics or browsing history.