Internet users are constantly surveilled—advertisers collect and purchase mass volumes of consumer data and then use that data to serve highly targeted ads back to consumers. Surveillance advertising not only harms consumer privacy and autonomy by using highly personal data in ways that consumers do not expect; it also worsens inequity by enabling predatory and discriminatory ad targeting. EPIC has long advocated for consumer privacy, autonomy, and equity by pushing for greater legislative and regulatory protections for consumers from the harms caused by surveillance advertising.
In response to public pushback to surveillance advertising, some companies are implementing their own changes. Google is rolling out Ad Topics, its new framework for targeted advertising on Chrome. Ad Topics is part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox Initiative. Ad Topics was preceded by FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), which would have organized users into groups based on their browsing history and served ads to users based on their assigned group. Google ended the FLoC project after facing criticism that the tool would harm user privacy and exacerbate discriminatory and predatory ad targeting. Google claims that Ad Topics incorporates feedback and criticism to the FLoC proposal, but the new system—like all “self-regulatory” approaches to privacy—fails to provide the systemic and reliable protections that consumers need.
The implementation of Ad Topics plays a key role in Google’s plan to stop supporting third-party cookies on Chrome in 2024. Chrome will be the last major browser to stop supporting third-party cookies on its platform—Apple’s Safari began to block third party cookies by default in 2017, and Mozilla’s Firefox did the same in 2019. After falling behind its competitors and facing criticism for previous plans to phase out third-party cookies, Google now touts Ad Topics for its benefits to user privacy and transparency. But Google’s new tool is far from a perfect solution to the harms of surveillance advertising.
To implement Ad Topics, Chrome infers interest-based categories, called “topics,” by evaluating users’ browsing history. For example, some of the topics include Rap & Hip Hop Music, High Intensity Interval Training, Women’s Clothing, and Child Care. The Topics API assigns a topic label to websites based on the content of the website. Users are assigned a new topic associated with their most frequently visited websites each week. For example, if a Chrome user seeking a loan visited multiple online lending sites in a week, that user could be assigned the “Credit & Lending” topic. In the initial rollout of Ad Topics, only 469 broad topics are included, but the topic taxonomy could expand in the future. Google states that it “aims to maintain a topics list that does not include sensitive categories (i.e. race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.).” Chrome will automatically delete topics after four weeks. Google states that topics are selected locally on users’ devices and that users’ topic data is not shared to external servers. To use topic data to serve an ad, Chrome…