Google is putting an end to Third Party Cookies. But before you celebrate the end of web tracking, they are replacing them with FLoCs (Federating Learning of Cohorts). According to Google, FLoCs are supposed to “..help publishers and advertisers succeed while also protecting people’s privacy as they move across the web.”
What are FLOCs?
Early 2019 Google presented what it termed as its vision for the web termed the privacy sandbox. Out of this project emerged a myriad of protocols aimed at performing the “functions in the targeted advertising ecosystem that is currently done by cookies.”
FLoC was one of these projects. It is designed as a “new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests.”
What this means is that instead of individual behavioral targeting, FLoC would group people into ‘cohorts’ so that individuals would ‘hide’ in the crowd. Your browser will thus share your cohort ID with websites and advertisers which will then be used to generate ads.
Google adds that their proof of concept software currently uses the domains of the sites that each user visited as the basis for grouping people together. Grouping would be done based on the websites one visits and would be created using an algorithm called a SimHash.
These groups are meant to be made of thousands of users. Moreover, in case one’s browsing behavior is such that it cannot reach that number then smaller similar groups are clustered together to create a large enough cohort.
Why the Change?
Following this story and the recent spat between tech peers Apple and Facebook, it may show that issues surrounding privacy is just a recent development. The truth however is third party cookies have always been a contentious topic, change was long overdue. Since their introduction users and institutions did not take kindly to being tracked for whatever purpose.
Other browsers like Mozilla and famously DuckDuck Go were only too happy to take advantage of the discontent by providing “anonymous browsing.” For all the top-notch services that Google provides to its over 2 billion global customers they were and still are unable to provide one of the most essential things in an age of increased surveillance; privacy.
I for instance am glad to use Google services for official/mainstream reasons; email, Youtube and ‘safe’ searches. However, sometimes I do want to veer off to say “controversial websites”, for a deeper search. For that I am smart enough to abandon Google for fringe browsers like Duck Duck Go who I trust do not track my activity.
I guess Google somehow noticed this and want to retain me on their browser all the time. In comes the FLoC.
While FLoCs might have been well intentioned, it is safe to say that the reception has been less than positive. In fact, some like Duck Duck Go have been outright hostile. Many still view it as a form of sophisticated tracking created to appease users but not actually solve the problem.
Vivaldi for instance wrote a post titled “No, Google! Vivaldi users will not get FLoC’ed.” In it they explain there many objections to FLoCs and advice users to reject the proposal.
Bennet Cyphers put up quite a critique of FLoCs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He details some of its biggest failings such as fingerprinting and cross-content exposure. He then implores users to ‘reject FLoC and other misguided attempts to reinvent behavioral targeting.’
We are at a critical point as far as internet privacy is concerned. As we press ahead to an age without Third Party Cookies let us all take care not to revert back to systems that will drag us back.