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What is Google Floc? Is it instrusive?

Third-party cookies and the Internet have grown up together; in fact, the first cookie created in 1994 by Lou Montulli was designed to help websites remember users and their preferences, but it started being used for user tracking and targeted advertisements as the Internet grew.

Things got so out of hand that the Internet transitioned into a boomerang, so much so that the things users searched for on the Internet started stalking them in the form of advertisements.

To solve this problem, mainstream browsers like Firefox and Safari blocked third-party cookies. Laws like the GDPR tried to restrict the use of third-party cookies, and the law mandated that any website using third party cookies should take user consent before saving these cookies on their systems.

Unfortunately, though, this law couldn’t do much good as users just ended up agreeing to all the cookies. In fact, the GDPR had a counterintuitive implication and made third-party tracking consent driven. 

Even though mainstream browsers like Safari and Firefox stopped using third party cookies a while back, Google never stopped using these tracking text files. After all, the company is in the ad tech space, and the use of third-party cookies helps the company in user profiling and sending targeted advertisements.

That said, Google is planning to make third party cookies obsolete, and according to this statement, the same will be rendered useless by the end of 2023. So will this move by Google make users’ lives more private on the Internet, or will it have a counterintuitive effect like the GDPR?

In this article, we will talk about Google Floc, a new technology that will replace third party cookies.

Google has started testing Floc on randomly selected browsers in Australia, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, India, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines and the U.S and you can check if your browser is one of them by clicking here.

Also read: What is iCloud private relay? Is it better than a VPN?


Google Floc explained

Google Floc or Federated Learning of Cohorts is a group based targetted advertisement strategy that prevents advertisers from getting hold of users personal information.

Simply put, Floc will place users with similar browsing preferences in a group and then label them according to their browsing habits. This labelled information will be given to advertisement companies, and they can send targeted advertisements to these groups.

A brief overview of how Floc works is given below:

  • Google Chrome will run an algorithm(Simhash) locally on user browsing history.
  • The algorithm will generate a vector which will be used to place users in a group.
  • The group will be labbled by Google according to the user browsing habits.
  • Cohort IDs will be sent to advertisment companies for sending targetted advertisments.

Google will perform the grouping activity weekly to place users in different cohorts based on their browsing habits.

Also read: How to disable or enable cookies on Microsoft Edge?


Advantages of Google Floc

Now that we understand how Google Floc works, we can look at the advantages it has compared to the older tracking mechanism.

As Google Floc groups people based on browsing habits, it does not provide granular personal information to advertisement companies.

In the case of third party cookies, profiles based on browsing habits were created for every user, and then advertisement IDs for these users were sent to advertisement companies. Although these IDs were anonymous, according to Google, several companies paired user personal information to advertisement IDs to identify users on the Internet.

Google Floc will provide users more privacy as they will no longer be linked to a personal identifier on the Internet. Instead, they will be part of a group with similar browsing habits.

Also, read: How to enable cookies on your MacBook?


Disadvantages of Google Floc

Although Google Floc tries to improve on the older tracking architecture, it still has some flaws, and a few of them are listed below:

Google is monopolising the advertisement space

Monopolies are wrong; we all know that, and Google Floc is trying to monopolize the advertisement industry.

In the world of third party cookies, any business could create a third-party cookie and then track users across the Internet. With the advent of Google Floc, other advertisement companies cannot create their third party cookies, and they will have to go to Google to get tracking information.

Due to this reason, other browsers like Edge and Firefox have boycotted Google Floc, and they won’t be supporting the technology on their browsers.

Tracking companies will have another vector to track users

Apart from third-party cookies, companies rely on browser fingerprinting to track users. Once Floc comes into the picture, companies will be able to make fingerprinting more accurate.

Although Floc tries to keep user browsing habits anonymous, the Privacy section of Google Floc’s Github page states that:

This API democratizes access to some information about an individual’s general browsing history (and thus, general interests) to any site that opts into it. … Sites that know a person’s PII (e.g., when people sign in using their email address) could record and reveal their cohort. This means that information about an individual’s interests may eventually become public.

Looking at this information, one can say that websites could successfully deanonymise users with ease which is a big privacy flaw. Also, the countries where Floc is being tested is not under the prevue of the GDPR, and this also shows that there are some flaws with the implementation.

Also read: Human Augmentation: From Human to Super Human

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