Don’t let Chrome’s big redesign distract you from the fact that Chrome’s invasive new ad platform, ridiculously branded the “Privacy Sandbox,” is also getting a widespread rollout in Chrome today. If you haven’t been following this, this feature will track the web pages you visit and generate a list of advertising topics that it will share with web pages whenever they ask, and it’s built directly into the Chrome browser. It’s been in the news previously as “FLoC” and then the “Topics API,” and despite widespread opposition from just about every non-advertiser in the world, Google owns Chrome and is one of the world’s biggest advertising companies, so this is being railroaded into the production builds.
Google seemingly knows this won’t be popular. Unlike the glitzy front-page Google blog post that the redesign got, the big ad platform launch announcement is tucked away on the privacysandbox.com page. The blog post says the ad platform is hitting “general availability” today, meaning it has rolled out to most Chrome users. This has been a long time coming, with the APIs rolling out about a month ago and a million incremental steps in the beta and dev builds, but now the deed is finally done.
Users should see a pop-up when they start up Chrome soon, informing them that an “ad privacy” feature has been rolled out to them and enabled. The new pop-up has been hitting users all week. As you can see in the pop-up, all of Google’s documentation about this feature feels like it was written on opposite day, with Google calling the browser-based advertising platform “a significant step on the path towards a fundamentally more private web.”
The argument here is that someday—not now, but someday—Google promises to turn off third-party tracking cookies in Chrome, and the new ad platform, which has some limitations, is better than the free-for-all that is third-party cookies. The thing is, third-party cookies mostly only affect Chrome users. Apple and Firefox have both been blocking third-party cookies for years and won’t be implementing Google’s new advertising system—it’s only the Chromium browsers that still allow them.
That’s actually what started this whole process: Apple dealt a giant blow to Google’s core revenue stream when it blocked third-party cookies in Safari in 2020. While it was a win for privacy, Google’s not following suit until it can secure its advertising business. The Federated Learning of Cohorts and now the Topics API are part of a plan to pitch an “alternative” tracking platform, and Google argues that there has to be a tracking alternative—you can’t just not be spied on. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also argued this when it called Google’s FLoC a “terrible idea,” saying “[Google’s] framing is based on a false premise that we have to choose between ‘old tracking’ and ‘new tracking.’ It’s not either-or. Instead of re-inventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads.”
Chrome has some controls for this built into the browser now. Just go to the Chrome Settings, then “Privacy and Security,” then “Ad privacy” (alternatively, paste “chrome://settings/adPrivacy” into the address bar). From there, you can click through to each of the three individual pages and turn off the top checkbox, and in a mere six clicks, you can presumably turn off the ad platform. If you leave it on for a while, you can check out the “Ad topics” page, where Google will show you what ads Chrome things you would like to see. This list gets sent to advertisers when you visit a page.
Google says it will block third-party cookies in the second half of 2024—presumably after it makes sure the “Privacy Sandbox” will allow it to keep its profits up. Did any user in the world want a user tracking and ad platform baked directly into their browser? Probably not, but this is Google, and they control Chrome, and this probably still won’t make people switch to Firefox.