Robin Berjon on ‘Topics’, Google’s Proposed Replacement for FLoC

Robin Berjon, who works on data governance and privacy for The New York Times, posted an insightful thread on Twitter last week looking at Google’s proposed “Topics” standard:

On any given page load, any origin (top or embedded) can become eligible to learn the topics matching the top level origin for that user. If you visit and I embed, both of these could know you like cats. [...]

The mechanism that controls who benefits from observing people is origin-based. So if and both embed, the latter free-rides on the topic value carefully curated by the former. [...]

It’s a rich-get-richer proposal: the more sites a third party is on, the more likely it is to get topics to target (meaning it gets more publishers, meaning more topics…). The explainer acknowledges that but doesn’t list it as an issue.

That last point is one of my key takeaways. Topics does look better than FLoC, but that’s not saying much. And it’s hard to look at Topics as anything other than a proposal by Google for Google. It benefits Google’s ad business because Google’s ads are used on so many sites, and it’s only possible that it’ll become widely deployed because Google controls Chrome, by far the most popular web browser in use today.

I wondered last week if Topics needs to be built into web browsers. The answer is yes, it does. Google can single-handedly make Topics available to just under two-thirds of the market (Chrome’s share). But I can’t see why any other browser would consider supporting Topics. Google wants to keep tracking users across the entire web in a world where users realize they don’t want to be tracked. Why help Google?

Google sees Chrome as a way to embed the entire web into an iframe on

(Also, iframes were a terrible mistake and never should have existed in the first place.)

Wednesday, 2 February 2022