On Monday, Google released a few more details on the proposed alternative to tracking third-party cookies, ‘privacy first’ technology, which from any angle seems to be just another way for the company to maintain its stability in digital advertising sales.
Google calls its new creation “Federal cohort training”(FLoC for short) and promises that this is not only a less sinister alternative to the third-party cookies and trackers we have come across I know and I hate over the years, but one that won’t hurt will reduce your advertisers’ profits. Like most things in adtech, the full offer is both complex and technical hell, but in short, while cookies allow advertisers to target people based on their individual Web browsing behavior, FLoC essentially clicks people in certain groups (called “herds”) based on their derived interests. Any Individually generated data will be stored in the browser and the only thing advertisers can track and the goal will be a “herd” containing a generalized group of semi-anonymized people.
As an example I can tell you that I recently became the proud owner of Immediate potand have spent the last few days visiting countless Instant Pot sites receptions,, hacks, and how to who invariably place third-party cookies in my Chrome browser, marking me as a potential Instant Pot fanatic. The way digital ads work right now, this type of cookie can be used to target me with instant ads next to a pot on the web, even if it’s something tortures me. Because these cookies are stored in the browser I use to browse the web – in this case Chrome, the only way to clear the data is through Chrome specific settings.
With FLoC, instead, my Chrome browser would keep track of the websites I visit, and extraordinarily put me in the so-calledherdAlong with thousands of other Chrome users. In this particular case, my browser can catch the countless slow cooker sites I visit every day and assign me to a specific slow cooker flock. Google advertisers can target these groups in the same way they target their cookie-based groups, a tactic that, as Google’s latest blog says, effectively hides people “in the crowd.”
FloC itself does not destroy third-party browser cookies – although Google has threatened to make this a reality for Chrome users before the end of the year– but the company hopes that this new paradigm will displace them. (Don’t worry, useful types of cookies, such as symbols that remember your login information for frequently visited sites, are not yet sent to the greats beyond.)
FLoC is just one of the proposals they include Privacy Sandbox Project Google launched in late 2019. Like these other proposals, they are ideas that sound decent until you start asking questions. As the EFF pointed out own breakdown of the Privacy Sandbox as part of a herd is no different than being marked with a “behavioral credit rating”: one that remembers your interests, your shopping history, and much of what drives you you, and puts it in the hands of an extremely powerful, largely unaccountable corporation.
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 create herds based on seriously sensitive information. Like we have written before, different types of data are considered “sensitive” to different people, which means that even if FLoC tries to mitigate some of these problems, there will still be users at risk. As stated in the documentation:
The cohort can reveal sensitive information. As a first mitigation, the browser must remove sensitive categories from its data collection. But this does not mean that sensitive information cannot leak […] It should be clear that FLoC will never be able to prevent any abuse.
Aside from this huge sound problem, it’s also worth remembering that FLoC only works if Google can still keep it unlimited access to all our juicy user data. This wrinkle prompted lawyers and academics in the field of digital privacy to call the company again and again, pointing out that Google ‘s privacy trick is actually a grimly veiled experience to destroy part of the digital advertising market while controlling everything built on its ashes. Earlier this year, the Competition and Markets Authority of the United Kingdom opened a formal investigation to explore some of these claims for yourself.
But this ongoing investigation in the UK (or any of the many other cases currently building against the company in the US) has not prevented Google from experimenting with FLoC. In the new blog, Google’s product manager Chetna Bindra claims that, in the company’s opinion, the audience targeting their “herd” tends to offer advertisers virtually the same blow for their money. Based on Google’s internal testing, Bindra claims that targeting ads through herds generates 95% of the same “conversions” – digital advertising jargon describing ad clicks or site purchases among other actions– what the cookie-based targeting did.
In other words, like Bindra he said CNBC, using FLoC for advertising, “is literally almost as effective as third-party cookies.” The only difference is that Google is spiraling out of control giant short of the ad targeting ecosystem to control almost the entire.