On March 30, 2021, Google unveiled its plans to release FLoC—a proposed alternative to third party cookies that claims to offer more user privacy—while still tracking users to provide advertisers with the information they need. Sounds like a good thing, right? But the more we began to hear about it, the more concern is growing over just how invasive FLoC may truly be.
What is FLoC?
FLoC, short for Federal Learning of Cohorts, is part of the Google Privacy Sandbox. It enables publishers and advertisers alike to target Google Chrome users anonymously as they hide in plain sight under interest groups assigned to them based on similarities and browsing history.
For example, if a user generally searches for information on digital marketing, they will be placed in the digital marketing cohort. Then advertisers looking to target individuals with similar interests can place bids to market to this group. In the past, each user had their own user profile consisting of data that enabled an advertiser to market to them individually.
Since 56.8 percent, or more than half of all search ad revenue in the United States comes from Google, the company has been under immense pressure to find an effective replacement for third party cookies, join the other web browsers that have already discontinued them, and enforce a privacy-first future for Google Chrome users.
FLoC was their solution, but this generated a new wave of user privacy concerns that we will delve into below.
Top 3 User Privacy Concerns
1. Fear of Browser Fingerprinting
Google already began to test FLoC using 8-bit cohort identifiers, which placed its guinea pigs in about 256 possible user groups. But the longer the cohort ID, the easier it becomes for websites to identify users and their interests to fingerprint them. Fingerprinting occurs when a company places a script on its website that collects your information. In addition to your interests, it can reveal access to information like your IP address, web browser, and more.
The war on browser fingerprinting is no new challenge for Google. They plan to combat this major user privacy concern with their Privacy Budget Plan, which can limit the amount of data that advertisers can access. But with no definitive solution, users are not impressed nor convinced just yet.
2. Unconsented Chrome FLoC trials
Google launched a series of what they called “FLoC origin trials,” that enabled them to test out the new Privacy Sandbox initiative before its official launch. As a result, they encouraged Google Chrome users to sign up, so they can experiment with their new interest-based marketing concept that groups users into cohorts, instead of targeting them individually. But to their surprise, many Google Chrome users who did not sign up to be a part of the experiment, learned that they were being tracked.
On July 13, 2021, the origin trials were said to have ended, but the controversy surrounding Google’s questionable business practices continued to concern users about the “privacy-first web” initiative Google once claimed to be striving for.
Due to its lack of support and complete disregard for user privacy, Google now plans to postpone its release of the Privacy Sandbox until late 2023.
3. Competitors Aren’t FLoCking To It
Statistics from Statcounter.com
Since Google holds more than 90 percent of the global search engine market share and over 65 percent of the browser market share worldwide, users aren’t the only ones concerned about how this new tracking method will impact them. Safari, Firefox, and other competing web browsers were some of the first to opt out of third party cookies, making them unable to access the user information needed to serve targeted ads to the right audience at the right moment.
From Google Drive to Google phones and search engines, we all use Google products and this will continue to provide Google with the first-party data they need to keep building user profiles to serve relevant ads, even after third party cookies have completely phased out. FLoC, on the other hand, will continue to keep the market share of other web browsers low, while equipping Google with everything they need to increase their own.
Here’s how the industry has been responding to FLoC, Google’s proposed solution to third party cookies:
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
As one of the first companies to speak up, the EFF launched #AmIFlocked, a campaign in response to Google’s unconsented FLoC trials. This allowed users to check their system to see if Google inserted a FLoC ID onto their web browser that was tracking them without their permission.
As a search engine that specializes in protecting user information and privacy, DuckDuckGo’s response to FLoC was to develop a Google Chrome extension that would block FLoC entirely.
In April of 2021, here’s what a spokesperson from Mozilla told The Verge regarding Firefox’s opinions on Google’s new “privacy-first” initiative:
“We are currently evaluating many of the privacy preserving advertising proposals, including those put forward by Google, but have no current plans to implement any of them at this time.
We don’t buy into the assumption that the industry needs billions of data points about people, that are collected and shared without their understanding, to serve relevant advertising. That is why we’ve implemented Enhanced Tracking Protection by default to block more than ten billion trackers a day, and continue to innovate on new ways to protect people who use Firefox.
Advertising and privacy can co-exist. And the advertising industry can operate differently than it has in past years. We look forward to playing a role in finding solutions that build a better web.”
On June 25, 2021, they announced the launch of their new privacy-first data sharing program in response to FLoC, called Mozilla Rally.
Google’s Privacy Sandbox is far from child’s play and even though FLoC is still a work in progress, Google Chrome users and competitors have had a first class seat in watching its reputation go on a downward spiral. One of the most valuable lessons Google should take from this experience is that in order to be friends, you don’t have to share your cookies, but listening to the concerns of others is the only way to survive on the playground–or in this case, the advertising industry.