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.