Google Kills FLoC While Proposing ‘Topics API’ as a Replacement for Third-Party Cookies

Image: Paweł Czerwiński via Unsplash
According to the new system, when a user visits a participating site, ‘Topics’ picks just three topics, one from each of the past three weeks, to share with the site and its advertising partners.

Following opposition, Google is has decided to ditch its “FLoC” plans for a system called “Topics API.” While there are currently no implementation details, the company has posted info about the Topics API in a blog post, on a GitHub page, in developer docs, and on a “Privacy Sandbox” site.

In an effort to get rid of the third-party web cookies used for tracking, Google first proposed FLoC (“Federated Learning of Cohorts”), which would allow its browser to track visitors to give insight to advertisers. Regarding Topics API Google’s Vinay Goel Product Director, Privacy Sandbox, Chrome, wrote:

“With Topics, your browser determines a handful of topics, like “Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation,” that represent your top interests for that week based on your browsing history. Topics are kept for only three weeks and old topics are deleted. Topics are selected entirely on your device without involving any external servers, including Google servers.

 
 

When you visit a participating site, Topics picks just three topics, one topic from each of the past three weeks, to share with the site and its advertising partners. Topics enables browsers to give you meaningful transparency and control over this data, and in Chrome, we’re building user controls that let you see the topics, remove any you don’t like or disable the feature completely.”

Google-released graphic showing third-party cookies (left) and the new Topics system (right)

The idea behind FLoC was that rather than allowing advertisers to collect a user’s browsing history to build an individual profile of you on their servers, Google proposed keeping the data stored locally and having the browser serve a list of your interests to advertisers in an effort to assure that users still get relevant ads.

 
 

Google’s pitch to privacy advocates was that FLoC and other elements of the “privacy sandbox” would be a better alternative.

Privacy advocates weren’t satisfied with Google’s proposed new system. Writing at the time, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Bennet Cyphers said in a post: “Users and advocates must reject FLoC and other misguided attempts to reinvent behavioral targeting. We implore Google to abandon FLoC and redirect its effort towards building a truly user-friendly Web.”

Making users less identifiable

While both FLoC and Topics API let the browser track users and record their interests, Google’s proposed Topics API will allow for users to have more control over how this process occurs which should make users less individually identifiable.

There is a full list of initial topics available here which includes a wide range of categories such as “Travel & Transportation,” “Politics,” “Arts & Entertainment,” and a wide selection of others.

“Unfortunately, the technology as described would be grossly insufficient for the needs of the vast majority of modern marketers.’

Mike Woosley, COO at Lotame, said in a statement sent to Branding in Asia that the Topics API will be insufficient to meet the needs of marketers looking for deeper insights into consumers.

“Unfortunately, the technology as described would be grossly insufficient for the needs of the vast majority of modern marketers who require detailed personas to determine marketing voice, segment customers, measure brand affinity, and tune marketing for complex products like insurance with very detailed segmentations,” said Woosley.

“Even the difference between “Sports” and “Hockey” can be the difference between worthless and worthwhile for the digital marketer. The latter category might just be 3- to 4% of the traffic in the former. Google could never survive relying on such basic tools for it’s vast empire of authenticated traffic, and to bequeath it to the rest of the world borders on insulting for most of the digital media industry.”

We will have to wait and see how the rest of the world, including privacy advocates and marketers, responds to this new development over the coming days.


 

To learn more about the details of the Topics proposal, including other design features intended to preserve privacy, see an overview on privacysandbox.com or read the full technical explainer.

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