Cookies are currently used to track users on the Web and to target them with advertisements that correspond to their presumed preferences. However, this system has been judged to be too intrusive from a privacy point of view and will soon disappear.
Google, which plans on conserving its enormous advertising revenues, is developing an alternative which makes use of the federated learning of cohorts (FLoC) instead of tracking individuals. But it too has also prompted concerns over data privacy. Google intends to change the rules of the game.
Advertising cookies that enable websites to make use of targeted ads are to be gradually phased out. For several years, their use has already been limited by Firefox and Safari and their disappearance is now planned for 2022.
For Google, the next step can be summarised in four letters, FLoC, which stands for the federated learning of cohorts. Created under the banner of the Privacy Sandbox, an open source initiative that promises a more privacy-conscious Internet, “FLoC” is intended to revolutionise online advertising.
The new experimental feature, which is now being tested on Google’s Chrome web browser, analyses users’ browsing histories from the previous week before assigning them to a group of other people with similar profiles called a cohort.
A cohort represents a group of browsing activities, not a set of people. They are useful for ad selection because they group together similar recent browsing behaviours. Individuals’ browsers will be assigned different cohorts as their browsing behaviour changes. Initially, Google expects browsers to recalculate cohort groupings every seven days.
How FLoC will be used has not been strictly defined
Google claims that it wants to make the web more respectful of personal data. The idea is therefore to put an end to advertising that targets individuals, who will now benefit from anonymity offered by a crowd.
According to the giant of Mountain View, the new system will be based on interests rather than identity, which will effectively protect users from aggressive and discriminatory campaigns and better protect their privacy. However, although it may make it more difficult for ill-intentioned companies and individuals to harvest user data and individually target them, it will still remain possible.
For Bernard Benhamou, the general secretary of the Institute of Digital Sovereignty, “It is not very different from using advertising cookies, and the reality is that it will be possible to regroup these data. It is more of a political move by Google, which enables them to say ‘we will no longer keep tabs on you individually’.”
Digital rights activists are up in arms
Google is currently testing its system in secret on a cross-section of Chrome users from around the world. This initial test currently affects 0.5% of users in certain regions, notably in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United States. And digital rights activists are up in arms because Chrome has not informed the users concerned that they are being tested...
The test, which is set to continue until July 2021, could eventually affect 5% of Chrome users worldwide.
Last month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocate, has condemned what it judges to be an alarming initiative. WordPress plans to take the unprecedented step of automatically blocking FLoC data in the coming days if its proposal to do so is accepted by its users.
For privacy groups, the potential for abuse of the new system is disturbing. As the EFF points out: “Google needs to learn the correct lessons from the era of third-party tracking and design its browser to work for users, not for advertisers.”
As to whether we will be tracked by cookies or FLoC, the battle is only just beginning. – AFP Relaxnews