09 March 2021

Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Google’s FLoC is a Terrible Idea”

Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of its proposals show that it hasn’t learned the right lessons from the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model. This post will focus on one of those proposals, Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), which is perhaps the most ambitious—and potentially the most harmful.

FLoC is meant to be a new way to make your browser do the profiling that third-party trackers used to do themselves: in this case, boiling down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral label, and then sharing it with websites and advertisers. The technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads, including discrimination and predatory targeting.

Google’s pitch to privacy advocates is that a world with FLoC (and other elements of the “privacy sandbox”) will be better than the world we have today, where data brokers and ad-tech giants track and profile with impunity. But that framing is based on a false premise that we have to choose between “old tracking” and “new tracking.” It’s not either-or. Instead of re-inventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the myriad problems of targeted ads.

Bennett Cyphers

While Apple is labeling iOS apps based on the amount of tracking, Google is working on new methods of ad targeting to phase out third-party cookies. I am no expert, but some of the criticism in the article seems overblown: FLoC intends to perform profiling locally in the browser, meaning the browsing activity on your laptop and smartphone (or using different browsers on a single device) would create separate targeting profiles (unclear though how this works if you sync browsing history across devices; this may make the profiles identical or at least very similar). This alone sounds like a big improvement over Facebook’s tracking, which collects activity across all devices where you are logged into Facebook – most likely Google does the same with your Google account. Moreover, FLoC targeting profiles are time-limited and should be recalculated weekly based on the previous week’s browsing, another big change compared to the current stand.

The discussion around new privacy problems caused by the possible adoption of FLoC has more merit, as well as the call to simply dismantle third-party tracking for a cleaner experience for users. Google is unlikely to go that far because of conflicting antitrust concerns. At the same time, tech companies are working on several other proposals to enable ad attribution without cookies, Google on the Event Conversion Measurement API and Apple’s WebKit team on Private Click Measurement. I suspect we will not see the final form of these efforts and their real-life consequences any time soon…

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