Google is rolling out the developer trial for its Federated Learning of Cohorts technology — otherwise known as FLoC, or, in the world of third-party cookies, Death Itself. FLoC is a replacement for third-party cookies that gathers data based on the behavior of groups of internet users (called cohorts) in order to generate relevant online ads, rather than tracking an individual’s browsing history.
“With FLoC, your browser determines which cohort corresponds most closely to your recent web browsing history, grouping you with thousands of other people who have similar browsing histories,” Google Privacy Sandbox Product Manager Marshall Vale wrote. “The identification number of the cohort is the only thing provided when requested by a site. This is different from third-party cookies, which allow companies to follow you individually across different sites.”
The trial is live for a small percentage of users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines and the US. Anyone who’s blocked third-party cookies in the current version of Chrome won’t have access to the initial test.
This is all part of Google’s plan to get rid of third-party cookies in Chrome and halt the practice of selling ads based on individual web activity. Ad sales are the foundation of Google’s empire, and also the subject of multiple antitrust lawsuits targeting the company.
Earlier this month, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton updated his multi-state suit against Google to address the new FLoC system, arguing it doesn’t eliminate antitrust issues at the core of the complaint. A total of 15 states have joined that particular lawsuit and the Department of Justice may throw its weight behind it, too. Regulators in the UK are also investigating Google’s new tracking system, worried it could further concentrate data and ad revenue in Google’s coffers.
“[Google] could undermine the ability of publishers to generate revenue and undermine competition in digital advertising, entrenching Google’s market power,” the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority said it found in a recent study.
In response to this scrutiny, Google has been publicly playing up the privacy benefits of FLoC without referencing the potential power imbalance built into such a system.
“We’re working in partnership with the industry through Privacy Sandbox on privacy-preserving alternatives to third-party cookies that support the free and open internet,” Google said in mid-March. “And as we’ve said, we will not replace third party cookies with alternative methods to track individual people across the web.”