Google Starts Testing FLoC as Alternative for Cookies: What It Means for Your Privacy


Google announced that it is implementing Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), that is an essential part of its Privacy Sandbox project for Chrome. FLoC is touted to be an alternative to third-party cookies for advertisement targeting. It runs locally and categorises your browsing behaviour that groups together like-minded users into a cohort. It will enable users to hide within crowds of people with similar interests and search histories. The cohort enables advertisers to target people based on their interests while maintaining privacy for individual users.

Through a post on its Web developers blog, Google announced that soon it will stop websites from registering third-party cookies. The software giant is currently testing FLoC in India, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, and the US. Google plans to roll out the trial version to other regions eventually. Google is not testing FLoC in the EU due to its General Data Protection Regulations (it is still unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered as personal data under the rules). Marshall Vale, Product Manager for Privacy Sandbox, said in a tweet that it is only rolling out the test version of FLoC in select markets to limit the size of the initial testing and the team undertaking the testing of FLoC is “100 percent committed to the Privacy Sandbox in Europe.”

Vale detailed the workings of FLoC through a blog post saying that it is “a new approach to interest-based advertising that both improves privacy and gives publishers a tool they need for viable advertising business models.” The new system will group users with similar interests, giving the advertisers the benefit of target marketing as well as providing ample privacy to users. The users will become a part of a larger group called cohorts that are defined by similarities in browsing history.

FLoC will also not share users browsing data with Google or any other advertiser. The cohort is identified by a special number (FLoC ID) that is the only thing shared when requested by a website. Chrome will also not share cohorts that it deems sensitive. So, if users of a cohort are accessing websites with sensitive content such as religious or political content at a high rate, FLoC will not share such data with the advertisers.

The search giant will also allow users to voluntarily opt-in to the FLoC trials, similar to any other Privacy Sandbox trials. Google also notes that its own advertising spaces will get the same access to FLoC IDs as third-party advertisers. A report on Google’s blog in January this year details how through the FLoC system “advertisers can expect to see at least 95 percent of the conversions of the dollars spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.” In January 2020, Google announced it will phase out third-party Web tracking for cookies on its Chrome browser. Safari announced in March 2020 that the browser will soon block third-party cookies through its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) system. Firefox also followed suit by cracking down on supercookies after its Firefox 85 update was announced in January 2021.

Most browsers, barring Chrome, have completely blocked ads or third-party cookies. Chrome is instead looking for ways to make users a little less vulnerable to cookies with FLoC. Google can’t completely block cookies on its browser as it is the main source of revenue for the company. Google holds majority of the market share by way of Chrome in the browser spectrum and Google Ad Sense in the advertising spectru. FLoC may just become a standard for preventing third-party cookies in the future.

Ealier this year, Google’s plan for blocking cookies was met with concerns from the US Justice Department. The plan may upend many smaller rivals with the loss of the data-gathering tool.

Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast, has a double bill this week: the OnePlus 9 series, and Justice League Snyder Cut (starting at 25:32). Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

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