Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) was never that popular, but it at least gave us a window into Google’s view of the type of solution that might replace third-party cookies come 2023.

Well, FLoC is now dead. Officially replaced by Google’s Topics API.

What was FLoC?

With data and privacy a real focus for Adapt in 2022 and beyond, FLoC is a topic we’ve discussed at length in previous articles. But in short…

“A privacy-first alternative to third-party cookies, it clusters large groups of people with similar interests together, hiding individuals “in the crowd” and uses “on-device processing” to keep everyone’s browsing history private.”

What is Google’s Topics API?

To an extent, the new Topics API is a more palatable, intelligent version of FLoC. Indeed, in its update, Google confirmed that “Topics was informed by our learning and widespread community feedback from our earlier FLoC trials…”

Using Topics, your browser will collect information browser-side about your interests. This information will be retained without involving any external servers (including Google’s own) on a rolling three-week basis.

The GitHub readme states the initial design for Topics includes around 350 topics for us to be “sorted” into. But this will be expanded over time.

How Does the Topics API Work?

When you land on a site that supports the Topics API, your browser will share with it one topic from each of the past three weeks - for a total of three topics - selected randomly from your five stored topics, plus a sixth “chosen uniformly at random”.

Quite simply, the advertisers can then use this anonymised data to decide what to show you.

How Safe is My Data?

As mentioned above, Topics works browser-side without the use of any external servers, including those of Google. This means, as was the case with FLoC, that any user data is never shared with either the advertiser, publisher or Google.

Google is also putting control over assigned topics in the hands of users…

“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.”

So, in theory, any information tying you back to this data is totally safe.

Is Topics the Future?

Yes and no. As FLoC has shown, the future post-third-party cookies is still incredibly uncertain.

Besides, Topics, just as FLoC before it, isn’t a universal solution guaranteed to become an industry-standard in the way third-party cookies are/were.

It’s clear that feedback received about FLoC was enough to make Google react. And only time will tell how the wider industry reacts to Topics.

When Will Topics API Launch?

Google plans to start trialling its Topics API very soon, perhaps before the beginning of Q2. And it will be available for testing globally, including in Europe.