Google recently made the almost-shocking announcement that not only would it be phasing out support for third-party cookies in Chrome, it would also not build something to replace those cookies. That’s a rather big promise considering how these cookies are used for advertising purposes, Google’s biggest business. Naturally, Google does have a solution to that predicament that it is calling Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC, now available for a few Chrome users to test and verify if it really works as advertised.
Web browsers, including Google Chrome, have been waging war on third-party cookies that have been abused for advertising purposes. While that campaign has been largely successful, Google knows that it could force some businesses and advertisers into a corner. Some have even adopted worse strategies like fingerprinting to get around those measures, putting users’ privacy at even more risk.
Google’s solution to protect users’ privacy while still giving publishers and advertisers something to profit from is federated learning, the company’s favorite machine learning strategy of late. What this essentially means is that it will use data stored on users’ devices, in this case, their Chrome browsers, in order to create groups of anonymous users. These groups are called “cohorts” in this scheme and they are at the center of Google’s third-party cookie replacement.
FLoC takes each user’s web browsing history and creates a group or cohort of other users with similar browsing histories. Individual data is not included in these groups and sites will only see groups’ IDs, not individuals. The idea is that ads will be targeted towards groups of people with presumably similar interests based on an AI’s analysis of their browsing history.
This definitely sounds more privacy-respecting than cookies but it doesn’t address one of the biggest reservations some camps have over this Privacy Sandbox that Google is proposing. Since it only works on Chrome and with Google’s implementation, some advertisers and antitrust advocates worry that Google is using its market position to push competitors out, something the tech giant denies but has not sufficiently addressed yet.