Google says no to FLoC, replaces it with Topic
Improving ways to protect our privacy online has been an ongoing topic of discussion for a very long time, with the massive penetration of the Internet into our daily lives. Hoping to make privacy even safer, just days ago Google announced Topics, a proposed Privacy Sandbox for Internet advertising. Last year, it released the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) proposal, which is superseded by Topics, Google said.
The Privacy Sandbox initiative was launched by Chrome in 2019 with the goal of building web technologies that serve two purposes: protecting people’s privacy online and helping developers with tools to build successful digital businesses.
Delay in banning third-party cookies
Last year, the continued delay in banning third-party cookies witnessed yet another setback from Google. In a blog post, he mentioned that Chrome could phase out third-party cookies over a three-month period, starting in mid-2023 and ending in late 2023. He also said that while a lot of progress has been made in the Privacy Sandbox initiative, there are many more opportunities for improvement in the ecosystem to get everything perfectly fine.
Subject excludes sensitive information areas
When Topic is used, the browser determines a few selected topics, for example “fitness”, “Travel and transportation”, based on a person’s browsing history for that week. Topics will be retained for three weeks, then old topics will be deleted. They are entirely selected on his device without the intervention of external servers, even Google servers.
When a user visits a participating site, Topic selects three topics – one from each of the past three weeks – to be shared with the site and its advertising partners.
Google added that Topic will provide transparency and control over this shared data. In Chrome, Google is building user controls that will allow the user to view topics as well as delete any topic of that type that they don’t like or disable the feature altogether.
A key area, according to the tech giant, has been excluding sensitive areas such as gender and race when implementing Topic. The subject will provide more control to see and decide how a user’s data will be shared.
Back to FLoC
Announced last year, FLoC, according to Google, was developed with the idea of protecting the privacy of individuals by placing them in a large crowd or cohort. This cohort will include thousands of people with similar recent browsing activity without any of them being individually identified.
The Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) uses open source technology that searches for clusters of similar information. Here it is used to create cohorts of people based on their web browsing activity.
Google said in its release that FLoC can be used to:
- Serve ads to people whose browsers belong to a cohort that has been seen visiting an advertiser’s website fairly frequently.
- Using machine learning models to predict the likelihood of a user converting based on their cohort – this can be used to inform ad bidding behavior.
- Recommend content to users.
In another article at the same time, Google stated that FLoC can provide an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies. He added, “Audiences are showing that advertisers can expect to see at least 95% conversions per dollar spent compared to cookie-based advertising.”
No FLoC, please
When FLoC was proposed, it was not welcomed with open arms. It received a lot of criticism from browsers like Brave and Vivaldi stating that they don’t support FLoC and what it plans to do.
In a blog post, Brave went on to say that “the worst part of FLoC is that it materially harms users’ privacy, under the guise of being privacy-friendly.” Brave has removed FLoC in the Nightly version of Brave for desktop and Android. Brave also added that FLoC makes it easier for sites to track users across the web. FLoC, according to Brave, promotes a false idea of what privacy is, and it’s also harmful to sites and publishers. Brave ended the blog post by encouraging all sites to disable FLoC.
Did FLoC really protect sensitive information?
When FLoC was released, Vivaldi also strongly opposed it. In a blog post, he wrote that Vivaldi defends the privacy rights of its users. It does not endorse tracking and profiling under any disguise. It does not allow its products to create local tracking profiles.
Video: Vivaldi Browser
Vivaldi said FLoC can have serious implications for people “who live in an environment where aspects of their personality are persecuted.” It can be sexuality, political views or religion and all of these aspects are part of a user’s FLoC ID.