Improving ways to protect our privacy online has been a topic of ongoing discussion for the longest time now, with the massive penetration of the internet in our everyday lives. With the hopes to make privacy even more secure, just days back, Google announced Topics, a Privacy Sandbox proposal for internet-based advertising. Last year, it had released the FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) proposal, which is getting replaced by Topics, Google informed.
The Privacy Sandbox initiative was launched by Chrome in 2019 with the goal of creating web technologies that accomplish two objectives – protect people’s privacy online as well as help developers with tools to build thriving digital businesses.
Delay in banning third-party cookies
Last year, the ongoing delay in banning third-party cookies witnessed yet another setback from Google. In a blog post, it had mentioned that Chrome can phase out third-party cookies over a three month period, starting in mid-2023 and ending in late 2023. It had also said that while a lot of progress had happened in the Privacy Sandbox initiative, there is much more scope for improvement across the ecosystem to get everything fully right.
AIM Daily XO
Join our editors every weekday evening as they steer you through the most significant news of the day, introduce you to fresh perspectives, and provide unexpected moments of joy
Topic excludes sensitive areas of information
When Topic is in use, the browser determines a few selected topics, say “fitness”, “Travel and Transportation”, based on a person’s browser history for that week. Topics will be kept for three weeks, and then the old topics are deleted. They are selected entirely on one’s device without the involvement of any external servers—even Google servers.
Download our Mobile App
When a user visits a participating site, Topic will pick three topics – one from each of the past three weeks – that will be shared with the site and its advertising partners.
Google added that Topic will provide transparency and control over this data shared. In Chrome, Google is building user controls that will enable the user to see the topics as well as remove any such topic one does not like or disable the feature fully.
A key area of focus, as per the tech giant, has been to exclude sensitive areas like gender and race while implementing Topic. Topic will provide more control to see and decide how the data of a user will be shared.
A look back at FLoC
Announced last year, FLoC, as per Google, was developed with the idea to protect individuals’ privacy by placing them in a large crowd or a cohort. This cohort will have thousands of people with similar recent browsing activity without any of them being individually identified.
The Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) uses an 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 during its release that FLoC can be used for:
- Showing ads to people whose browsers belong to a cohort that has been seen to visit an advertiser’s website quite frequently.
- Usage of machine learning models to predict the probability that a user will convert based on their cohort – this can be used to inform ad auction bidding behaviour.
- Recommend content to users.
In another post during the same time, Google said that FLoC can provide an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies. It added, “Audiences show that advertisers can expect to see at least 95 per cent of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.”
No FLoC, please
When FLoC was proposed, it was not greeted with open arms. It received much criticism from browsers like Brave and Vivaldi, with them declaring that they did not support FLoC and what it plans to do.
In a blog post, Brave went on to say that “the worst aspect of FLoC is that it materially harms user privacy, under the guise of being privacy-friendly.” Brave removed FLoC in the Nightly version of both Brave for desktop and Android. Brave also added that FLoC makes it easier for sites to track users across the web. FLoC, as per Brave, promotes a false notion of what privacy is, and it is also harmful to sites and publishers. Brave ended the blog post by encouraging all sites to disable FLoC.
Did FLoC really protect sensitive information?
During FLoC’s release, Vivaldi, too, heavily opposed it. In a blog post, it wrote that Vivaldi stands for the privacy rights of its users. It does not approve tracking and profiling in any disguise. It does not allow its products to build up local tracking profiles.
Video: Vivaldi Browser
Vivaldi expressed that FLoC can have serious implications for people “who live in an environment where aspects of their personality are persecuted.” These can be sexuality, political viewpoint, or religion and all of these aspects become part of a user’s FLoC ID.