Google Flushes Controversial FLoC In Favor Of Topics API To Replace Third-Party Cookies

Google Topics
After more than a year of testing, Google is abandoning plans to replace support for third-party tracking cookies with the "Federated Learning of Cohorts," otherwise known as FLoC, basically an algorithm that sorts people into groups with others who have similar browsing habits. Google isn't embracing third-party cookies, though. Instead, it's introducing a Topics API to replace its FLoC proposal.

Something like this was bound to happen. While Google was pretty excited about FLoC, the controversial cookie replacement was not as enthusiastically embraced by the industry at large. Amazon, for example, added code on various website to block FLoC, while WordPress proposed treating FLoC as a security threat.

It also drew scrutiny from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which called FLoC a "terrible idea." According to the EFF, while FLoC would indeed avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, it would also "create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads, including discrimination and predatory targeting."

Well, FLoC is out and the Topics API is in. What does that mean? Instead of lumping people into groups, the Topics API enables your browser to determine a handful of topics that are of interest to you, like "Fitness" or "Team Sports," to give a couple of examples.

"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," Google explains.

Google Topics vs Cookies diagram
Cookies on the left, Topics on the right

The browser holds onto topics for three weeks and then deletes them. Google also points out that topics get selected solely on your browsing habits and do not employ any external servers, including its own.

Sites have to support Topics for this to work. When you visit a site that does, the browser will ping it with three randomly selected topics you are interested in, which the site in turn can share with its advertising partners in determining what targeted ads to show you.

Google says you'll be able to see a list of topics associated with your browsing history, and you'll also have the ability to remove any of them.

For anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the Topics API, you can check out the technical details on GitHub.