February 2, 2023

Google has decided to drop FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), its cookie alternative, with something called Topics API. The Topics API will use browsing topics into 300 or so categories. FLoC is a FLoP since  it received lot more criticism around.

FLoC would have clustered groups of people together based on common interests or browsing patterns. This information would then be shown to advertisers as a vague visualisation that wouldn’t have revealed user information or web URLs for the sites they visited.

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Companies like DuckDuckGo, Vivaldi, Brave and Amazon spoke out against the new system and said that this does not prevent user tracking from cookies, since groups with a few thousand users could still be a strong identifier. They also objected to letting Google decide what was and wasn’t sensitive information.

Google is proposing an alternate solution called Topics. The new system works by identifying up to five of your interests per week while online. These can be things like fitness or travel based on your web activity.  This information will then be condensed and shared with advertisers, showing them only your topics of interest and excluding any personal data. Google says initially it will have 350 topics at launch, with more added later.

Topics information is stored on your system locally for three weeks before it is automatically deleted. If you use Chrome, then Google will let you see and edit your preferred topics, or also give you the option to opt out of Topics entirely. When advertisers request information about your Topics, then Google will pick one topic each from the last three weeks and share them with advertisers. This will of course, be used to serve targeted ads based on your interests.

Google says it will launch a developer trial for the new API in Q1 2022 but hasn’t announced a firm date yet.

The Brave browser’s Team has already spoken out against Google’s new ad system, saying Google is just Rebranding FLoC without addressing key privacy issues. Brave also calls out the fact that Google still retains control of what is and isn’t sensitive data and said that it was,”arrogant and dangerous for Google to be the arbiter of what users consider sensitive’ data.

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The team also pointed out the fact that Topics is significantly worse than FLoC when it came to smaller advertisers, since the new system only shows information to them on pages they appear on.

For larger companies like Google, whose ad systems are in place on nearly every site, this isn’t a problem, but smaller advertisers will suffer. Instead of solving a problem this is going to aggravate the privacy issue on a longer note

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