If Google thought to transition away from third-party cookies was going to be smooth, it has been disabused of that notion in recent days. Google recently began testing its replacement technology, known as Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), but almost every company that has anything to do with the internet aside from Google itself has come out against the system. Mozilla, Microsoft, DuckDuckGo, and many others have said they won’t support FLoC, but Google might not need them to forge ahead.
No one, except maybe the Texas AG, is mourning the loss of third-party tracking cookies. These bits of code follow you around the web, building a profile of your activities that informs advertisers. Eliminating these cookies is a major privacy boost for the internet, and Google pledged its so-called “privacy sandbox” would not feature any similar technology. FLoC is Google’s alternative to cookies, which groups users into “cohorts” rather than revealing individual activities.
With FLoC, your browser will churn through your web activity locally and assign you a FLoC ID. Sites can request the ID, which groups you with a few thousand other people based on your interests. Google believes this affords users an acceptable degree of privacy. No one else seems to think so, though.
The EFF came out against FLoC last month, calling it a “terrible idea” because it could make it easier to identify people with browser fingerprinting. The Foundation says there’s no reason we need to choose between “old tracking” and “new tracking,” and search company DuckDuckGo seems to agree. It noted that Google believes FLoC will be 95 percent as effective as third-party cookies in targeting ads. That’s good for Google, but maybe not so great for the rest of us. DuckDuckGo even made a Chrome extension that blocks FLoC. The Brave and Vivaldi browsers have also strongly objected to supporting FLoC.
Microsoft and Mozilla have opted not to support FLoC at this time, but they’re less adamant about it. Mozilla told The Verge it’s “evaluating” various proposals, but says it has no plans to support FLoC at this time. Microsoft, which uses the Chromium codebase to make the Edge browser, has disabled FLoC. It says it might decide to enable it in the future if there are no better alternatives. Although, it does have its own cookie alternative called PARAKEET (Private and Anonymized Requests for Ads that Keep Efficacy and Enhance Transparency).
Even with all this opposition, Google’s push toward FLoC might be inevitable. Depending on who you ask, Chrome has 65 to 70 percent of the browser market. So far, Google has only enabled FLoC for a small number of users — you can see if you’re one of them with this handy EFF tool. If it decides to roll the feature out to everyone, it becomes the de facto standard. Even if FLoC doesn’t work out, Google is an advertising company that won’t let ad targeting die. Anyone hoping for an internet without tracking should get ready for disappointment.
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