Google Cancels FLoC Cookie Replacement, Announces ‘Topics’ API for Chrome Instead

Google Cancels FLoC Cookie Replacement, Announces ‘Topics’ API for Chrome Instead

Third-party cookies are a bad way to serve ads on the web, and there’s hope this practice will end in the near future. We need to figures out what comes next, though. Google previously hoped to replace cookies with FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts), but now it says FloC isn’t happening. Instead, it plans to launch a new “Topics” API in Chrome.

No sooner had Google announced FLoC than privacy advocates and competing web companies came out strongly against it. Google has committed to phasing out third-party tracking cookies as part of its “privacy sandbox,” and that’s a good thing for everyone other than advertisers. Cookies can follow you around the web, gathering data on the sites you visit in order to build an ad profile. FLoC was supposed to obfuscate your activities by assigning you a FLoC ID based on your interests that grouped you with several thousand similar people.

Opponents to the Google plan claim FLoC would have made it easier to identify people with browser fingerprinting, and it did little to curb the excesses that made people wary of cookies in the first place. The new Topics API should address this concern by making you part of larger, more general groups in the Chrome browser. If you want to look at the technical details, Google has all that in a GitHub project.

Topics will still monitor what you do on the web, but it will use that data to assign you five different topics like sports, fitness, travel, and about 350 others. Google says it has formulated Topics to avoid sensitive categories like gender and race. This all happens in the Chrome browser, which will retain topics for three weeks and never sends them to a remote server. When you visit a site, Chrome provides three of your topics — one from each of the last three weeks. This forms the basis for ad targeting during that session. You will have access to Topics in Chrome where you can remove individual items or disable the system entirely. Naturally, you’ll get less relevant ads.

The early consensus seems to be that Topics is an improvement over FLoC when it comes to privacy. That said, many would prefer that Google and other online advertising firms didn’t need tracking and ad targeting all. That may not be a realistic request, though, and getting rid of tracking cookies is undeniably good. Google says it’ll phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2023. We just have to hope that Topics (or whatever the eventual replacement is) does not end up being worse.

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