Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) is part of the Privacy Sandbox, a new suite of tools aimed at replacing and improving conventional third-party cookie tracking that enables modern online advertising. The company has been working on it for more than a year, and this week it is set to start using the system on a small portion of Chrome users in the US and other countries.
FLoC is complicated, but in a nutshell: the idea is to replace cookies, small files that track your web log and other semi-personal information, with a new and more secure, smaller individual system. FLoC uses the browser itself to identify broader behaviors and interest groups, such as “sports fans”
Getting rid of the individual cookie files reduces some of the risk and exposure made possible by today’s web – or so Google claims anyway. The first testing of the new FLoC system is part of the company’s pressure to remove third-party information traces from all Chrome web usage in early 2022. In addition to the US, some Chrome users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines will be added.
Google’s efforts to make surfing more private and secure without breaking the advertising foundation that so much of the web depends on sounds noble, and it certainly does not hurt Google’s ongoing battle with increased regulatory control. But not everyone buys it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among others, sees FLoC as just a mask for a new generation of more sophisticated tracking systems that go beyond the cookie.
It is absolutely true that there are more complex, and sometimes more effective, ways to track a web user’s behavior without leaving a file on the local machine. These “fingerprint” methods are also more aimed at identifying specific groups of people, possibly including those who are more exposed to targeted advertising – for example, a group of recovering gambling addicts served an ad for a gacha game that uses casino-like tactics for to encourage spending. For what it’s worth, Google has promised not to use these alternative tracking methods when getting rid of third-party cookies in Chrome. As part of its commitment to monitoring users’ privacy in Chrome, Google has launched a new website dedicated to the Privacy Sandbox.
How to block FLoC testing
Users who have manually blocked third-party cookies in Chrome will not be included in the test. To block FLoC immediately on the desktop version of Chrome, go to the Chrome main settings menu. Click “Privacy and Security”, then “Cookies and Other Website Data.” Make sure “Block third-party cookies” is selected.
On Android, this process is a little different. From the Settings menu, tap “Site Settings.” Then tap “Cookies” and make sure “Block third-party cookies” is selected.
Google says it will add a switch to Chrome browsers later in April to select FLoC and Privacy Sandbox testing. We will update this post when that option becomes available.