Google Abandons FLoC, Replaces It With a Similar Topics-Based System

Frederic Lardinois, TechCrunch:

FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), Google’s controversial project for replacing cookies for interest-based advertising by instead grouping users into groups of users with comparable interests, is dead. In its place, Google today announced a new proposal: Topics.

The idea here is that your browser will learn about your interests as you move around the web. It’ll keep data for the last three weeks of your browsing history and as of now, Google is restricting the number of topics to 300, with plans to extend this over time. Google notes that these topics will not include any sensitive categories like gender or race.

Daisuke Wakabayashi, Kate Conger, and Brian X. Chen, New York Times:

Google said there had been tens of thousands of potential cohorts under the previous plan, but that it would reduce the number of Topics to fewer than a few thousand. The company said users would be able to see what topics were associated with them, and remove them if they chose.

Google said Topics would use human curators rather than allow machine learning technology to generate user groups, as the FLoC plan did. This will eliminate the possibility that groups might be based on sensitive characteristics like sexual orientation or race, Google said.

I am amazed that it only took widespread concerns from researchers, outrage by privacy activists, and the prospect of an E.U. antitrust investigation for Google to reconsider FLoC.

I have my doubts about whether this fully resolves complaints about FLoC, even as it may minimize them. Going from “tens of thousands” of FLoC cohorts to only about three hundred topics seems like progress. But eventually expanding to “fewer than a few thousand” is similarly worrisome, albeit to a lesser degree.

Sara Fischer, Axios:

With Topics, it’s harder for anyone to map user data back to a user because the topics are updated so frequently. Google said it also sends fake topics to about 5% of the websites to make sure topic generation is too random to trace.

Surely a positive sign as well.

This all sounds like Google remaining reluctant to rethink its business model, even as it is listening to criticism. Topics is one way of making behaviourally targeted advertising less damaging instead of acknowledging its fundamental ethical flaws.