Skip to main content

Google abandons FLoC, introduces Topics API to replace tracking cookies

Google abandons FLoC, introduces Topics API to replace tracking cookies


Google’s new concept assigns users five interests per week based on web activity

Share this story

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Google is walking back plans to replace third-party cookies with FLoC by instead proposing the Topics API, a new system for interest-based advertising. Topics works by pinpointing five of your interests, such as “Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation,” based on your web activity, as measured by participating sites, for one week.

Your browser will store these topics for three weeks before deleting them. Google says that these categories “are selected entirely on your device” and don’t involve “any external servers, including Google servers.” When you visit a website, Topics will show the site and its advertising partners just three of your interests, consisting of “one topic from each of the past three weeks.”

As noted on the Topics API GitHub page, there are currently about 350 available topics in its advertising taxonomy (although Google plans on adding anywhere from “a few hundred” to “a few thousand” eventually). Google says Topics won’t include any “sensitive categories” like race or gender. And if you’re using Chrome, the company is building tools to let you view and delete topics, as well as turn off the feature.

Cookies (left) compared to Topics (right), which Google says will be easier to manage and understand.
Cookies (left) compared to Topics (right), which Google says will be easier to manage and understand.
Image by Google

Google’s running out of time to replace third-party cookies in Chrome by 2023, as promised. The company plans on launching a developer trial for Topics in Chrome, but there’s no information on when exactly that will begin.

“Browsers have traditionally worked only for the users — remember how great it was when they all started blocking pop-up ads?” John Bergmayer, the legal director at Public Knowledge, a nonprofit that promotes an open internet, points out. “Google’s concepts on this topic seem to flip that.”

Google’s previous replacement for third-party cookies, FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts), is a form of interest-based tracking that identifies you based on your “cohort,” or a group of people that share similar interests.

Privacy critics said FLoC can make it easier for advertisers to identify you

Privacy critics, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), argued the system poses additional privacy risks, such as making it easier for advertisers to identify you with browser fingerprinting, a tool used by sites to gain specific information about your device and browser, and may also expose information about your demographics, potentially resulting in discriminatory targeted ads. Due to these concerns, browsers like Brave, Vivaldi, Edge, and Mozilla have all refused to use it.

“It definitely improves on FLoC in some important ways,” Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at EFF told The Verge. “Being less scary than FLoC doesn’t mean it’s ‘good.’ It will tell third-party trackers about what kind of sites you browse, and it could help websites and advertisers ID you across devices.”

But Google’s idea of assigning topics to users isn’t exactly new. As EFF points out, Google’s Privacy Sandbox weighed the idea of PIGIN in 2019, otherwise known as “Private Interest Including Noise.” Like Topics, it would work by sharing a list of interests with advertisers, but as Cyphers of EFF explained at the time, it could still “provide trackers with a massive new stream of information they could use to build or augment their own user profiles.” A recent update says a newer version of that approach, under the name FLEDGE, is in early testing on Chrome and Chrome Canary. Google will share more details on that plan and “measurement technical proposals” later this week.

Update January 25th 2:45PM ET: Updated to add a statement from Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at EFF.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Not just you

External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.

Welcome to the new Verge

Revolutionizing the media with blog posts

Nilay PatelSep 13
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.

Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.

A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.

Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.

External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.

External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.