There’s a good chance that by now you have come across ads on the web that has startled you because you had just been searching its content. This happens because internet users are subjected to very specifically targeted advertising. For this purpose, the multibillion-dollar ad industry is constantly on the cusp of invading the privacy of netizens. All internet users are tracked through the web to collect data about their search patterns, particular interests and inclinations so that they can be shown ads specifically geared towards them. The prevalent technology currently used for this tracking is known as third-party cookies.
Whereas first-party cookies make our current internet experience possible by allowing websites to remember little pieces of information about the repeating visitor, third-party cookies track us extensively through everything we do in our browsers. Unsurprisingly, this has raised a lot of alarming privacy and security concerns over the years. Browsers like Safari and Firefox have already blocked the usage of third-party cookies on their platforms. Google has decided to follow suit and plans to get rid of them by 2022. But, it is developing a workaround technology that it calls Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
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Google dubs FLoC a privacy-first approach. Instead of tracking each individual through the web, FLoC will group thousands of people into cohorts based on similar interests. Every member in a cohort will be assigned a cohort ID. This ID will be shared with ad companies. So instead of targeting someone explicitly, advertisers will target their ads towards these general cohorts. Each individual is supposed to be placed into different cohorts each week and to further protect anonymity, Google claims it won’t share information about a cohort before it has thousands of members. The generation of this cohort will be done algorithmically. Google won’t label the cohorts or even really know what the grouping is based on. It will be up to the ad companies to figure that out.
In theory, this sounds like a move in the right direction for protecting our online privacy. Concerns are directed towards discriminatory and predatory targeting. Companies like Apple vigorously renounce any kind of tracking of users. Aside from Google Chrome, no other browser has agreed to deploy FLoC. Currently, Google has a de facto monopoly in internet advertising.
Although Google says it plans to enable users to opt-out of using this technology, competitors are concerned that it will place a massive amount of power in Google’s hands. However, Google has already rolled out the feature experimentally in some countries.