“It’s slightly more privacy-protective than FLoC,” said Sara Collins, a senior policy counsel at the public interest nonprofit Public Knowledge. The larger topic groups would grant users more anonymity, but Google’s plan could still be circumvented by fingerprinting techniques meant to track individual users, she said.
Google said Topics would use human curators rather than allow machine learning technology to generate user groups, as the FLoC plan did. This will eliminate the possibility that groups might be based on sensitive characteristics like sexual orientation or race, Google said.
“There were a couple of research studies that showed concern over this happening,” Vinay Goel, who oversees the Privacy Sandbox initiative at Google, said in an interview. “We didn’t find evidence that it was happening.”
Peter Snyder, director of privacy at Brave, a privacy-minded search engine, said the changes with Topics did not address the core issues with Google’s previous proposal.
“At root is Google’s insistence on sharing information about people’s interests and behaviors with advertisers, trackers and others on the web that are hostile to privacy,” Mr. Snyder said in a statement. “These groups have no business — and no right — to learn such sensitive information about you.”
Google’s Topics plan echoes a revision made to its search product several years ago. In 2019, the company gave users the ability to set up their search history to automatically purge every three or 18 months. That made it harder for advertisers to target individuals with highly personalized ads based on their web traffic. Google also gave users the ability to disable it from recording search histories altogether.
Critics noted that the privacy controls were ineffective because they were difficult for the average person to find, and by default, Google continues to keep a permanent record of people’s search histories.