Weeks ago, Google introduced a new feature called FLoC, which essentially will turn off support for third-party cookies on the Chrome browser. This resulted in a big ruckus in the web market and Google is on the receiving end of severe criticism from the big players and the other third party websites.
FLoC or Federated Learning of Cohorts, is a Google alternative to third party websites/cookies which is based on machine learning, that allows browsers to study a user’s browsing behavior and groups them with a similar bunch of cohorts. This is going to replace the method of user tracking by replacing third party cookies with FLoC.
In simple words, FLoC will enable interest-based ads on the web without letting advertisers know your identity, which is not half bad, but it comes with its own drawbacks. For instance, based on your last week’s browsing history, Chrome learns about your interests, behavior and places you in a group of similar people whose browsing history matches yours. Your ad prompts will be based on your cohort and not your data which is now anonymous. This could lead to a flood of misleading ads if you end up being in the wrong cohort, and further intermingling of preferences in the cohort itself could trigger inaccurately targeted ads.
WHY IS GOOGLE IMPLEMENTING THIS?
To understand this further, we must realize why Google stepped in to build an alternative to third-party cookies. In the past there has been a lot of buzz about privacy on the web and it has always been a point to make users understand how deeply personalized and accurate their ads are.
Moreover, we have seen how Apple, Firefox and others have been blocking third-party cookies all along, and Chrome being a huge player in the market did not. That is why there was a need to bring a similar blocking method for Chrome.
FLoC is also an attempt by Google to save its online ad business amidst a raging privacy war.
Google says, it will enhance users privacy since FLoC works on the user’s device and uses inbuilt artificial intelligence-based learning, letting users to sharing limited data to third party cookies. It also helps users to protect their data from several tracking methods and more. Google says it just wants to replace third party cookies, and not entirely remove them.
Google also claims it to be an essential tool for the entire internet and not just a browser extension.
WHICH BROWSERS ARE AGAINST IT?
Opera, Duck Duck go, Microsoft’s edge, Apple’s Safari, Brave, Vivaldi warned users and and took a strong stand against FLoC. They say that even if Google tries to implement it, they will block it from their end.
All these companies are also expressing their concerns about privacy from a user perspective and don’t want people to bend on their will.
Safari and Firefox have already blocked FLoC’s implementation from their end.
As this happens, every major browser already has or will soon block third-party cookies, the default way of identifying you and tracking you across the web.
Although Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have ideas for how advertising on the web should work, but Apple isn’t just trying to stop all ads but it plans to develop privacy-enhancing ad proposals of its own.
IS FLOC SAFE?
FLoC has some potential privacy concerns. If not implemented correctly, it could become a hub of leaking sensitive information. One if its major concerns is it’s vague surveillance tech that would allow third party cookies to run under certain protocols, which could still be harmful as the old standard.
Fingerprinting is one of the biggest concern of the modern day internet, viz. pinpointing one’s online identity in milliseconds. Which is why Chrome asks us to disable third party cookies, and wants to eventually combat fingerprinting via FLoC. Moreover, Google announced it’s “privacy sandbox”, a tool that will help you to mask your FLoC ID. This is a developing tool in its beta stages, which could become a permanent feature with pushed updates.
HOW TO KNOW IF FLoC IS ENABLED?
Just head over to EFF’s FLoC tracking site, which will tell you if the company has activated the new tracking tool for you or not.
ANY OTHER ALTERNATIVE BROWSERS?
There are a variety of options in the market, more privacy-centric browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox engine, Duck Duck Go’s, Microsoft Edge, opera etc.
FLoC seems to be a step in the right direction in regards to the privacy debate. But is it all what it seems? With limited information not much can be said, but it needs to be approached with a bit of skepticism.