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Google exits FLoC, introduces Topics API to replace tracking cookies

Google is planning back to replace third-party cookies with FLoC by proposing the Topics API instead, a new system for interest-based advertising. Topics works by identifying five of your interests, such as “Fitness” or “Travel and Transportation,” based on your web activity, as measured by participating sites, over a week.

Your browser saves these topics for three weeks before you delete them. Google says these categories are “selected entirely on your device” and do not include “external servers, including Google servers”. When you visit a website, Topics shows the site and its advertising partners only three of your interests, consisting of “one topic from each of the past three weeks.”

As stated on the Topics API GitHub page, there are currently about 350 topics available in the ad taxonomy (although Google plans to add anywhere from “a few hundred” to “a few thousand” eventually). Google says Topics don’t include “sensitive categories” like race or gender. And if you use Chrome, the company builds tools that let you view and delete topics, as well as disable the feature.

Cookies (left) compared to Topics (right), which Google believes are easier to manage and understand.
Image by Google

As promised, Google is running out of time to replace third-party cookies in Chrome by 2023. The company plans to launch a developer trial for Topics in Chrome, but there’s no information on when exactly that will begin.

“Browsers traditionally only worked for the users – remember how great it was when they all started blocking pop-up ads?” John Bergmayer, the legal director at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that promotes an open internet, points out. “Google’s concepts on this topic seem to turn that around.”

Google’s previous replacement for third-party cookies, FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts), is a form of interest-based tracking that identifies you based on your “cohort” or a group of people who share similar interests.

Privacy critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), argued that the system poses additional privacy riskssuch as making it easier for advertisers to identify you with browser fingerprints, a tool used by sites to obtain specific information about your device and browser, and it may also disclose information about your demographics, which could potentially result in discriminatory targeted advertising . Because of these concerns, browsers like Brave, Vivaldi, Edge, and Mozilla have all refused to use it.

But Google’s idea of ​​assigning topics to users isn’t exactly new. As EFF points out, Google’s Privacy Sandbox weighed the idea of ​​PIGIN in 2019, also known as “Private interest including noise.” Like Topics, it would work by sharing a list of interests with advertisers, but as EFF’s Bennett Cypher explained at the time, it could still provide trackers “a huge new stream of information that they can use to build their own user profiles or expand .” A recent update says a newer version of that approach, called FLEDGE, is in early testing on Chrome and Chrome Canary. Google will share more details about that plan and “technical measurement proposals” later this week.

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