Google today announced the launch of Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), an important part of Chrome’s Privacy Sandbox project, as a trial version of the developer’s origins.
FLoC is meant to be an alternative to the kind of cookies that advertising technology companies use today to track you online. Instead of a personally identifiable cookie, FLoC runs locally and analyzes your browsing behavior to group you into a like-minded group with similar interests (and does not share your browser history with Google). This cohort is specific enough for advertisers to do their thing and show you relevant ads, but without being so specific that marketers can identify you personally.
This “interest-based advertising”
The trial is set to begin in the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines. Over time, Google plans to scale it globally. As we learned earlier this month, Google is not running any tests in Europe due to concerns about the GDPR and other privacy policies (in part because it is unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered personal information under this policy).
Users will be able to opt out of this origin sample, just as they will be able to do with all other Privacy Sandbox trial versions.
Not surprisingly, given how FLoC upgrades many of the existing online advertising systems in place, not everyone loves this idea. Advertisers obviously love the idea of being able to target individual users, although Google’s preliminary data shows that using these cohorts leads to similar results for them, and that advertisers can expect to see “at least 95% of conversions per dollar spent on cookies.” based advertising. ”
Google notes that its own advertising products will have the same access to FLoC IDs as competitors in the advertising ecosystem.
But it is not just the advertising industry that is skeptical of this project. Privacy advocates are also not entirely sold on the idea. The EFF argues, for example, that FLoC will make it easier for marketing companies that want, for example, fingerprint users based on the different FLoC IDs they expose. This is something Google is addressing with its privacy budget proposal, but how well it will work remains to be seen.
In the meantime, users will probably prefer to just surf the web without seeing ads (no matter what the advertising industry wants us to believe) and without having to worry about their privacy. However, online publishers continue to rely on advertising revenue to fund their sites.
With all these different interests, it was always clear that Google’s initiatives would not please everyone. This friction was always built into the process. And while other browser providers can directly block ads and third-party cookies, Google’s role in the advertising ecosystem makes this a little more complicated.
“When other browsers started blocking third-party cookies by default, we were happy with the direction, but concerned about the immediate impact,” Marshall Vale, Google’s product manager for Privacy Sandbox, wrote in today’s announcement. “Excited because we absolutely need a more private network, and we know that third-party cookies are not the long-term answer. Concerned that many publishers today rely on cookie-based advertising to support their content efforts, and we had seen that blocking cookies was already spawning privacy-invasive solutions (such as fingerprints) that were even worse for users’ privacy. Overall, we felt that blocking third-party cookies directly without viable ecosystem alternatives was irresponsible and even detrimental to the free and open network we all enjoy. “
It is worth noting that FLoC, as well as Google’s other privacy sandbox initiatives, are still under development. The company says that the idea here is to learn from these first attempts and develop the project accordingly.