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Google axes FLoC, floats Topics

Google’s controversial project for replacing cookies with groups of users for interest-based advertising Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC has been axed. The project will be replaced by a new Privacy Sandbox proposal called Topics.

Instead of using traditional third-party cookies, as per this new concept, your browser will learn about your interests as you browse the internet using the last three weeks of your browsing history. The number of topics is currently restricted to 300, which will be expanded in the future. The topics are also selected on-device, meaning no external servers are involved. 

Upon visiting a participating site, Topics will pick three topics from each of the past three weeks of recorded browser history and share them with the site and its corresponding advertising partners. Additionally, Chrome will have user controls that will let users see the topics chosen, remove the ones they don’t like or disable the feature altogether. 

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Safer advertising or sharper tracking?

Google has outlined the technical details of Topics API on GitHub with plans to launch developer trails in Chrome, including user controls enabling web developers and the ads industry to give the concept a shot.

The trial will also determine the final user control design and various other technical aspects of how Topics will function based on feedback and response from the trial.

Currently, the purpose of the Topics API is to provide advertisers with “coarse-grained advertising topics that the page visitor might currently be interested in”, which can be used in combination with the contextual signals from the current page to help find an appropriate ad for the visitor. 

The GitHub explanation also lays out some privacy rules like the following:

  • Reidentifying a significant number of users across sites using the Topics API alone should be difficult.
  • The Topics API shouldn’t provide more or significantly less information as compared to third-party cookies.
  • Revealed topics should be significantly, less personally senstive for a user as compared to what existing tracking methods report. Sensitive topics such as gender or race aren’t included in the initial 300 topics as of now. 
  • Users should be able to completely understand the API and must be able to enable or disable the feature.

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