On Monday, Google released some more details on the proposed tracking option for third-party cookies, a “privacy-first” technology that, from all angles, seems like just another way for the company to maintain its stranglehold on the sale of digital ads.
Google calls the new establishment “Federated cohort learning”(Abbreviated FLoC), and promises that it is not just a less scary alternative to third-party cookies and trackers that we have come to know and abhor over the years, however, one that will not hurt, reduces the profits of the advertisers. Like most things in adtech, the whole proposal is both complicated and technical like hell, but in a nutshell, while cookies allow advertisers to target people based on theirs individual browsing behavior, FLoC would essentially pick people into specific groups (called “flocks”) based on their derived interests. Some Data generated on an individual basis will be stored in the browser, and the only thing advertisers could track and the target will be a “flock” containing a collective group of semi-anonymous people.
As an example, I can tell you that I recently became the proud owner of one Instant pot, and has spent the last few days on countless Instant Pot sites recipes, hacks, and how to do it which always releases third-party cookies in my Chrome browser, and which marks me as a potential fan of Instant Pot. How digital ads work right now, these kinds of cookies can be used to target me with ads that come with Instant Pot online, although it is quite skew me out. Because these cookies are kept in the browser I use to surf the web – Chrome, in this case – is the only way I can flush the data through Chrome specific settings.
With FLoC, what happens instead is that my Chrome browser will keep an eye on the sites I visit, and in overtime clump me into a so-called “herd“Along with thousands of other Chrome users. In this particular case, my browser can grab the countless slow cooking sites I visit every day and assign me to a specific flock of slow cooking. Google’s advertisers can target these groups in the same way they target their cookie-based groups in advance – a tactic that, as Google’s latest blog puts it, “effectively hides individuals ‘in the crowd’.”
In itself, FloC does not turn off cookies from third-party browsers – although Google has threatened to make it a reality for Chrome users. before the end of the year—But the company hopes this new paradigm will replace them. (Do not worry, the useful type of cookies, such as tokens that remember your logins for frequently visited websites, are not sent to the bulk beyond yet.)
FLoC is just one of the proposals that includes Privacy Sandbox project Google started towards the end of 2019. Like the other proposals, there are ideas that sound okay until you start asking questions. As the EFF pointed out in its own collapse of Privacy Sandbox, it’s not unlike being part of a herd to be labeled with a “behavioral credit score”: one that remembers your interests, your buying history and much of what makes you you, and puts it in the hands of an extremely powerful, largely irresponsible company.
Plus as Google’s own technical documentation points out, it is impossible to promise that the machine learning algorithm that creates these groups will not inadvertently end up creating flocks based on seriously sensitive information. As we have written before, different types of data are considered “sensitive” for different people, which means that even if FLoC tries to mitigate some of these issues, there will still be users at risk. As stated in the documentation:
A cohort can reveal sensitive information. As a first limitation, the browser should remove sensitive categories from the data collection. But this does not mean that sensitive information can not be leaked […] It should be clear that FLoC will never be able to prevent all abuse.
Aside from the huge honking problem, it’s also worth remembering that FLoC only works if Google can still keep its unhindered approach to all our juicy user data. This wrinkle has led lawyers and academics in digital privacy to call the company nonsense again and again, to point out Google’s privacy features is actually one dirt veiled attempts to kill part of the digital advertising market while controlling everything built on the ashes. Earlier this year, the UK Competition and Markets Authority opened a formal investigation to examine some of these claims for themselves.
But this ongoing investigation in the UK (or some of many other issues currently building against the company in the US) has not prevented Google from experimenting with FLoC. In the new blog, Google Product Manager Chetna Bindra claimed that, according to the company’s estimate, an audience targeted by the “herd” tends to offer advertisers virtually the same bang for the buck. Based on Google’s in-house testing, Bindra claims that ad targeting via flocks generated 95% of the same “conversions” – digital ad lingo that describes clicks on an ad or purchase on a site among other actions—As cookie-based targeting did.
In other words, like Bindra told CNBC, which uses FLoC for advertising, “is literally almost as effective as third-party cookies.” The only difference is that Google goes from controlling a gigantic part of the ad-targeted ecosystem to control virtually everything.