Google made a bold, unexpected, and curious promise of not creating new technology to replace the third-party tracking cookies it would soon be banning from Chrome and, consequently, the Web. That said, some have labeled Google’s new experiment precisely like that. While it advertises its Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC as a more privacy-respecting way for advertisers to gather data, some, like DuckDuckGo, are calling shenanigans and taking steps to block FLoC activity even while you’re using Google Chrome.
FLoC basically trades individual tracking for group tracking, placing individuals inside cohorts or groups that share similar browsing histories. It’s only the IDs of these cohorts that are made available to third parties, namely advertisers, for the purpose of ads directed towards those groups instead of single users. Google promises that most (but not all) of the data and processing don’t leave users’ devices and third parties will never be able to find out who’s who.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that this is indeed more private and there have been calls from privacy advocates for Google not to implement FLoC. Making matters worse is that Google’s FLoC experiment is being enabled for a random number of Chrome users in the US, allegedly without their knowledge or consent. DuckDuckGo, most popular for its privacy-respecting web search and tools, is going beyond just calling out Google, however, and is updating its products to block FLoC by default.
DuckDuckGo just recommends just not using Chrome completely but that isn’t exactly an option for many people. In that case, it is updating its Chrome web extension to block FLoC interactions in addition to tracking cookies. It also says that DuckDuckGo Search opts out of FLoC by default, regardless if you have the extension installed or not.
Praise for Google’s hard-line stance against tracking cookies quickly turned into criticism over hits FLoC strategy. In addition to doubts about the actual privacy measures of this new technology, there have also been accusations that Google is using its favorable position in the web browser market to give it an advantage in the advertising platform market since FLoC and its advertising benefits only work on Chrome anyway.