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Google announces Topics tool to replace tracking cookies, drops FLoC

Google is changing its approach to the demand for a more private browsing experience for web users once again. Simultaneously, it is developing technologies to assist marketers in displaying relevant adverts based on web browsing activity while keeping the details of individual websites a person has visited private. The Topics API (or Federated Learning of Cohorts technology), as Google defines it, is a substitute for the FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts technology) that was propped up last year.

Courtesy: The New York Times

Because Google aims to disable third-party tracking cookies in the Chrome web browser by 2023, there is a pressing need for a new means of online advertising that is both more private and less intrusive in terms of exposing your web browsing history. The Topics API, which is part of the Privacy Sandbox program, offers grouping interests into genre-like buckets for targeted advertising.

At first, 350 topics will be available, including travel, sports, automobiles and vehicles, music, and more. As a result, expect a lot more to be added. These will be interests based on your Google Chrome web browser surfing history. Within that week, to be precise. These themes will be determined by the websites you visit. These topics aren’t specific to you or the device you’re using to browse the web with the Chrome browser.

What method will be used to construct the subject buckets? This is a good question. This will be based on data from Google as well as the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

“Compared to tracking technologies like third-party cookies, Topics is powered by the browser, thus it gives you a more recognizable means to monitor and choose how your data is shared.” In addition, by supplying websites with your themes of interest, online companies have an option to continue presenting relevant adverts without using covert monitoring techniques like browser fingerprinting,” explains Vinay Goel, product director, Chrome’s privacy sandbox, in an official post.

The next phase is that when you visit a website that asks for your most-visited topics, the website will receive one topic from the previous three weeks. Keep in mind that these are broad topic buckets rather than specific websites or web pages.

Cookies, on the other hand, monitor you across websites and exchange your information. This implies that if you’ve been browsing websites with the category “Books & Literature” assigned to them, you might see adverts for an online book store in your area. If it’s the same one you go to and buy from on a frequent basis, it could be a coincidence.

In order to keep your web surfing history private, FLoC took a somewhat different strategy. FLoC, pronounced Flock, recommended categorizing users into big groups (thus the name cohorts) – that is, groups of at least 1,000 people – based on their web surfing history and content preferences. Advertisers would be able to target that group with an ad.

The FLoC technology was panned. Concerns were raised that the cohort approach could still be utilized for tracking by narrowing down users or smaller groups over time as their cohort IDs changed weekly.

“People’s interests change over time, and their FLoC IDs do as well. FLoC IDs appear to be recalculated every week or so at the moment. This means that if a tracker can connect up user visits over time using other information, they can utilize the combination of FLoC IDs in week one, week two, and so on to distinguish individual users,” Eric Rescorla, Mozilla Firefox’s CTO, explained last year.

“If a tracker starts with your FLoC cohort, it only has to distinguish your browser from a few thousand others (rather than a few hundred million),” the Electronic Frontier Foundation had stated after the announcement of FLoC in early 2021. “It’s well-known that stopping fingerprinting is impossible. “Browsers like Safari and Tor have been fighting trackers for years, sacrificing vast swaths of their own feature sets in order to limit fingerprinting attack surfaces,” they noted.

The topic of publisher revenue, which Google has been chastised for in many countries, including India, was also brought up. Google “may damage the ability of publishers to generate money and erode competition in digital advertising, entrenching Google’s market position,” according to the UK Government’s Competition and Markets Authority.”Subjects enables browsers to provide you with substantial transparency and control over this data,” Goel continues. “In Chrome, we’re providing user controls that let you see the topics, remove any you don’t like, or disable the functionality entirely.”

This entire process, according to Google, takes place on the device you’re using the Chrome browser on, whether it’s a phone, a laptop, a PC, or a tablet. This information does not need to be transferred to any other servers for processing, including Google’s. The Topics API is still in its early phases of creation. Developer trials are planned to begin in the coming weeks, giving websites the opportunity to test this feature. Once the testing begins on websites and test versions of the Chrome web browsers, there may be adjustments to how this works based on stakeholder feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

However, it may be some time before it is included in Google Chrome browsers for PCs and mobile. It’s anyone’s guess whether this feature will gain widespread acceptance and be ready to fulfil the 2023 deadline for removing third-party browser cookies from Chrome.