Google is introducing some significant changes to how it tracks you in web browsers. The company is ditching the maligned Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) and replacing it with a new tracking method called Topics.
Why Is FLoC Hated?
FLoC was initially intended to replace cookies, but it was far from beloved by internet users. It was designed to group users together based on browsing history, and advertisers would be able to see the behaviors that people in a cohort share without seeing the individuals.
To do this, you need to be assigned an identifier before assigning you to a group, which could mean that someone looking to track you already have an easier path than they did previously.
As you might expect, this change was met with criticism. While it was meant to create a more private tracking method, it introduced new privacy concerns such as Fingerprinting and Data “Democratization.”
Mozilla was unwilling to adopt FLoC for its popular Firefox browser. Brave also disabled FLoC. It’s clear that FLoC wasn’t going to catch on, and that’s probably a large part of why Google is abandoning it in favor of Topics.
What’s Different With Topics?
Instead of FLoC, Google has introduced a new interest-based targeting proposal called Topics, which will select topics of interest based on your browsing history. It doesn’t introduce external servers to share those topics with participating sites.
“With Topics, your browser determines a handful of topics, like ‘Fitness’ or ‘Travel & Transportation,’ that represent your top interests for that week based on your browsing history,” said Vinay Goel in a Google blog post.
Google said Topics are deleted after three weeks, so you won’t have to worry about websites tracking you for an extended period.
The company explained how Topics is better than the cookies we all know and love (hate). “More importantly, topics are thoughtfully curated to exclude sensitive categories, such as gender or race. Because Topics is powered by the browser, it provides you with a more recognizable way to see and control how your data is shared, compared to tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies,” said Goel.
Thankfully, it looks like Google will build in a way to disable this new tracking tool, though the company didn’t say whether it’ll be turned on by default. “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,” said Google.
The company is set to roll out a developer trial of Topics in Chrome, so it’ll take some time before we start seeing the change in day-to-day web browsing. Websites will have to implement it and test it first, and we’ll have to see if it catches on.
If you want to know more about how Topics will work, Google created a detailed technical explainer that breaks down everything you need to know. There’s a lot to it, but the general idea is relatively simple.