Google Kills FLoC, Pushes Forward with Topics

Well, here’s one Google cancelation that shouldn’t upset anyone: Google’s coming Privacy Sandbox will no longer be based on FLoC, its controversial replacement for web browser cookies.

“We started the Privacy Sandbox initiative to improve web privacy for users, while also giving publishers, creators and other developers the tools they need to build thriving businesses, ensuring a safe and healthy web for all,” Google product director Vinay Goel writes in the announcement post. “Today, we’re announcing Topics, a new Privacy Sandbox proposal for interest-based advertising. Topics was informed by our learning and widespread community feedback from our earlier FLoC trials, and replaces our FLoC proposal.”

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FLoC dates back to August 2019, when Google first announced its plans for the Privacy Sandbox, which it described as a new standards-based system that would allow advertisers to sell ads without harming user privacy. The system would replace cookies and allegedly help prevent fingerprinting and the other tracking techniques that are at the heart of Google’s advertising empire.

Naturally, this plan was met with skepticism. But as Google pushed forward, most browser makers—including Brave, DuckDuckGo, Mozilla, and Vivaldi, but not Microsoft—all announced plans to block FloC. And Google was forced to continually delay its implementation while it sought feedback from interested parties. Most of which apparently told it that FLoC was a nonstarter.

So here we are.

Google’s new FLoC replacement, called Topics, is still designed to replace tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies. And it will still be a browser-based technology that balances the financial needs of Google and its advertisers with the privacy needs of its customers.

“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,” Google explains. “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.”

Described as “thoughtfully curated,” which is an interesting term for an automated process that does not involve human input, Topics will exclude sensitive categories like gender or race, Google says. It’s more transparent because it will be built into the browser and let you control how it works. (Not that you can turn it off, of course.) And it lets its “business partners” (advertisers) know some of your interests without invasive tracking techniques. It’s a win-win!

Expect this plan to come under fire from critics too.

You can learn more about the Privacy Sandbox and Topics at the Privacy Sandbox website and via a technical explainer on GitHub, of all places. A developer trial will be available soon in Chrome for developers, Google says.

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Conversation 14 comments

  • will

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 9:37 am

    <p>Google and privacy do not go together. Sort of like Hersey’s creating the most effective toothpaste. </p>

    • karlinhigh

      Premium Member
      25 January, 2022 - 11:49 am

      <p>It turns out that chocolate-flavor toothpaste DOES exist, they just didn’t go for quite that much brand licensing.</p><p><br></p><p></p>

  • Chris_Kez

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 10:02 am

    <p>It says you can “disable the feature entirely”. What happens then? </p>

    • sharps

      Premium Member
      25 January, 2022 - 10:54 am

      <p>Sounds interesting spec so far. Google hasn’t really addressed browser fingerprinting though as that comes from other browser information these days which Google don’t seem that interested in blocking (eg. reading gpu details, spatial, sensor data, etc.).</p><p><br></p><p>From the GitHub page:</p><ul><li>If the user opts out of the Topics API, or is in incognito mode, or the user has cleared their cookies or topics, the list of topics returned will be empty</li><li>We considered a random response instead of empty but prefer empty because:</li><li class="ql-indent-2">It’s clearer to users to see that after disabling the feature, or entering incognito, that no topic is sent</li><li>Returning random values would be a loss to utility, for marginal gain in privacy, since the API will return an empty topic for one of many reasons:</li><li class="ql-indent-3">incognito</li><li class="ql-indent-3">the caller hasn’t seen the topic</li><li class="ql-indent-3">cleared cookies</li><li class="ql-indent-1">the API is disabled</li></ul><p><br></p>

  • karlinhigh

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 11:08 am

    <p>I get it that preventing ad targeting favors huge mass-market companies over small niche-market ones, whose budget then gets instantly burned showing ads to people who aren’t their target demographic.</p><p><br></p><p>But why can’t ads satisfactorily target the page content regardless of the user? If someone’s searching for team sports, put up team sports ads. If someone’s searching for X, put up ads related to that, etc etc.</p>

    • wright_is

      Premium Member
      26 January, 2022 - 12:24 am

      <p>This is what I have been saying for years. I block all the trackers I can, over 2.5 million domains at last count. I don’t mind seeing adverts, but I am not trading my personal information for the ability to targeted with adverts.</p><p><br></p><p>If a site advertises directly to me, I have no problems with that, but not through third party trackers.</p>

    • geoff

      26 January, 2022 - 11:03 pm

      <p>Exactly what I want.</p><p><br></p><p>Think of it as similar to Free To Air TV.</p><p>If I watch a football game, I see ads targeted at ‘people who watch football games’.</p><p>If I watch a reality Tv show, a game show, or whatever, I get ads targeted at that audience while remaining anonymous.</p><p><br></p><p>Privacy does NOT kill revenue for the content creators. Not if it’s done right.</p>

  • Bart

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 11:36 am

    <p>The fact Google doesnt stick to third party cookies that we can disable, means bad news. Period. This stuff, though Google sells it well, is just as harmful.</p>

  • Daekar

    25 January, 2022 - 2:42 pm

    <p>You know what they should do? Drop the damn tracking. Let ME tell YOU what kind of ads I want to see. Give me a dashboard. Make it as granular as you want. If I don’t choose anything then I get unpersonalized ads. If I do choose things, then I am voluntarily giving you signals that I want to see ads associated with interest in the topics I indicated.</p><p><br></p><p>There is no sacred commandment anywhere which says that we must allow personalized advertising by ANY company. The default should be unpersonalized ads, and the fact that we’ve suffered from decades of abuse under a different default doesn’t change that.</p>

    • oxymarc

      Premium Member
      25 January, 2022 - 4:05 pm

      <p>Yes. This. 100%!</p>

  • spacein_vader

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 3:15 pm

    <p>When it comes to ads its be nice to see Paul do an article on ways people can defend themselves, everything from ad block extensions, through ad blocking browsers like brave through to solutions like Pi-Hole that block ads at your home networks DNS level. It’s not for everyone but works brilliantly for me, I’ve even installed my own VPN so my phone routes through the ad blocker when using the mobile network too. </p><p><br></p><p>That said, I appreciate that for a site owner like him it’s a conflict as ad revenue is an income stream. </p>

    • oxymarc

      Premium Member
      25 January, 2022 - 4:08 pm

      <p>I have been using NextDNS. It has been working great for me so far. </p><p>My home network is setup to use it, so are all my mobile devices as well. </p><p>The great thing is that you can adjust the filters for your account and don’t have to go with a "one size fits all" kind of approach some other ad- or tracking blocking services offer. </p>

  • divodd

    Premium Member
    25 January, 2022 - 7:04 pm

    <p>Google will never be able to win because the luddite privacy obsessives will never be satisfied until they completely murder the wonder of the modern, personalized Internet. Honestly, Google should just keep third party cookies and thumb its nose at all the last place backwards browsers as it does whatever it wants </p>

  • zhackwyatt

    Premium Member
    21 March, 2022 - 12:09 am

    <p>Unfortunately this is being misreported just like FLOC. Neither of these track you, they categorize you. Topics is actually much better from a privacy perspective than cookies and other fingerprinting which does track and uniquely identify you. I’d much rather have topics, than what we have today. </p><p><br></p><p>Check out Security Now 856:</p&gt;

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