Google Abandons Controversial FLoC Project for API Topics

Photograph of Documents to be Analysed

As part of its critical Privacy Sandbox initiative, Google is now instating the Topics API too, which will replace the now obsolete Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) project. This move is an attempt to quell the industry’s third-party cookie and ad targeting concerns. The announcement was made by Google on January 25th.

FLoC was a Chrome browser trial framework that would enable interest-based web advertising without exposing user identity to ad targeting by associating users with a “cohort,” thereby anonymizing users (to a degree).

The FLoC Controversy

Google’s short-lived, complex, and controversial FLoC was originally supposed to replace third-party cookies, which are tracking mechanisms outside of what the user is directly interacting with.

The issue was that FLoC received a lot of negative industry feedback because it added additional fingerprinting that could eventually narrow down individual users and did not take sensitive topics like gender and race into account.

More backlash stemmed from the fact that FLoC would still put Google in the captain’s chair when it comes to collecting data and audience control.

What is Google’s Topics API?

According to Google’s Privacy Sandbox Director Vinay Goel, Topics API is “a new Privacy Sandbox proposal for interest-based advertising.”

Topics API offers topics determined from users’ browser history that represent top weekly user interests grouped under categories like “Fitness” or “Travel & Transportation.” This data is, according to Google, kept for three weeks while old topics are discarded.

Furthermore, Topics API does not involve external servers or Google servers in the process, and the feature can be disabled entirely if the user wishes to do so. Topics API is meant to give Chrome users “meaningful transparency and control over this data,” which is a departure from “tracking mechanisms like third-party cookies.”

The system is not dissimilar to FLoC. However, Topics API should deny businesses direct ID-level user insight or tracking ability while only seeing topics of interest, which is supposed to create some distance between the user and the ad industry. This way, both users and the industry business needs should be met.

Disorder in the Data Privacy Domain

It is questionable whether simply replacing FLoC with Topics API will resolve Google’s privacy and ad targeting woes. A lot of “shifting the goalposts” has been taking place in a tech industry where the views of the ad industry, privacy groups, and regulatory bodies are constantly clashing.

Google, particularly, is in a tough position because it is the golden child of the online ad industry. As such, solutions on how to boost privacy without angering the ad industry, like phasing out third-party cookies, have been drawn out for over two years now.

Beating Google to the chase, Apple has phased out third-party cookies in 2020 in its Safari browser. Likewise, popular browser products that advocate privacy such as Mozilla’s Firefox and the Brave Browser have been against solutions such as FLoC from the start.

User Data Processing is a Work in Progress

The user data conundrum is a mess, multiple social media CEOs have been grilled in Congress concerning user data, and several other issues are yet to settle. The EU’s strict data regulation effort is in full force registering record-breaking GDPR fines meanwhile the U.S. government is trying to find an optimal compromise for all involved, like bolstering grants to improve democracy in technology.

According to the Financial Times (FT), numerous EU publishers like Germany’s Axel Springer are strictly against eradicating third-party tracking as this would be “breaking EU law,” effectively also breaking the ad industry’s revenue model. A UK watchdog study found that online publishers would consequently suffer revenue losses of up to 70%.

Tech researcher & communications specialist
Mirza has an education background in Global Communications, has worked in advertising, marketing, journalism and television over the years while living in several different countries. He is now working to consolidate news and outreach at, while in his free time he likes to work on documentary projects, read about sociology and write about world events.