Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a
new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of
its proposals show that it hasn’t learned the right lessons from
the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model. This post
will focus on one of those proposals, Federated Learning of
Cohorts (FLoC), which is perhaps the most ambitious — and
potentially the most harmful.
FLoC is meant to be a new way to make your browser do the
profiling that third-party trackers used to do themselves: in this
case, boiling down your recent browsing activity into a behavioral
label, and then sharing it with websites and advertisers. The
technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies,
but it will create new ones in the process. It may also exacerbate
many of the worst non-privacy problems with behavioral ads,
including discrimination and predatory targeting.
Google’s pitch to privacy advocates is that a world with FLoC (and
other elements of the “privacy sandbox”) will be better than
the world we have today, where data brokers and ad-tech giants
track and profile with impunity. But that framing is based on a
false premise that we have to choose between “old tracking” and
“new tracking.” It’s not either-or. Instead of re-inventing the
tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world without the
myriad problems of targeted ads.
If you prefer a Chromium-based browser, you should use one other than Chrome. I like Brave for my (occasional) Chromium browser needs, but Microsoft’s Edge might be a good choice too. Brave bills itself as a privacy browser; at this point it seems fair to say Google is turning Chrome into an anti-privacy browser. It’s that simple.