Everyone hates “FLoC,” Google’s Chrome ad tracking plan

Zoom in / Vivaldi graphics on FLoC.


Google wants to kill third-party tracking cookies used for ads in Chrome using the “Chrome privacy environment”. Because Google is also the world’s largest advertising company, it doesn’t kill tracking cookies without putting something else in its place. Google’s replacement plan is for Chrome to create an interest profile for you locally, through a system called “FLoC” (Federated Learning of Cohorts). Instead of advertisers collecting your browsing history to build your individual profile on their servers, Google wants to keep that information local and let the browser serve a list of your interests to advertisers whenever they request through the API, so you will still receive relevant ads. Google claims that recruiting browsers to track ad interest is a privacy gain because it keeps your accurate browsing history local and serves only anonymous interest lists. Google, however, does not have many other companies in its corner.

One of the first to oppose Google’s plan was EFF, which in March wrote a blog post titled “Google’s FLoC is a terrible idea.” The EFF seems to be completely opposed to tracking users for ads, saying Google’s framing of the problem is “based on the false premise that we have to choose between‘ old tracking ’and‘ new tracking ’.

“It’s not either-or,” EFF writes. “Instead of reinventing the tracking wheel, we should imagine a better world of countless targeted ad problems.” EFF worries that FLoC won’t prevent advertisers from personally identifying people, and that the API will serve full profile information on first contact with the site, saving tracking companies from having to do the profiling work themselves over time. He also argues that “the targeted advertising mechanism is often used to exploit, discriminate and harm.”

Google search engine competitors have also come out against FLoC. Mozilla told The Verge: “We are currently evaluating many privacy advertising proposals, including those put forward by Google, but we do not currently plan to implement any of them.” The Firefox developer continued, “We don’t assume the industry needs billions of data about people being collected and shared without their understanding to serve relevant advertising.”

Google infographics on how FLoC works.
Zoom in / Google infographics on how FLoC works.

As for another major independent search vendor, Apple, it’s hard to imagine it would be on board with FLoC given how much the network has been for privacy and against ads in the past. Although there is no official statement, Webkit (Safari’s display mechanism) Engineer John Wilander said the WebKit team “did not say we would implement [FLoC] and we have our own prevention prevention policy. “

Next, how many Chromium forks are about FLoC? “No” here would mean removing the code from your browser’s code database. Verge also asked Microsoft about his feelings and received a long, winding answer that I don’t think FLoC comes down to a clear “yes” or “no”:

We believe in a future in which the web can provide people with privacy, transparency and control, while supporting responsible business models to create a vibrant, open and diverse ecosystem. Like Google, we support solutions that give users clear consent and do not circumvent consumer choice. This is also why we do not support solutions that use inconsistent user identity signals, such as fingerprint. The industry is on its way and there will be browser-based proposals that do not require individual user IDs and proposals based on consent and first-party relationships. We will continue to explore these approaches with the community. For example, we were recently pleased to present one possible approach, as described in our PARAKEET proposal. This proposal is not a final repetition, but a document that is evolving.

Brave posted an entire post about why it disables FLoC, saying it’s detrimental to users and a “step in the wrong direction,” citing many of the same concerns EFF has. The Vivaldi browser also has a blog post (and the image above) explaining why it won’t support FLoC, saying “Google’s new data collection job is nasty” and “a dangerous step that harms user privacy”.

There have been reports that WordPress, which runs something like 34 percent of all websites on the Internet, will block FLoC, but that’s just a proposal submitted by one of its contributors. WordPress founder, Matt Mullenweg, says the company has not made “yet to make any decisions or changes” at FLoC.

DuckDuckGo, one of Google’s rivals, has also come out against FLoC, and in addition to disabling it on search pages, it has released a Chrome extension that blocks FLoC tracking on the web. I don’t think I’ve seen any company other than Google claim that FLoC is a great idea.

FLoC is currently being introduced as a trail in Chrome, and as of March 30, it’s enabled for “0.5% of Chrome users”. EFM’s site amifloced.org will let you know if you’re one of the few lucky ones.

Part of the uh, “magic” of Chrome is that if Google doesn’t see value in reaching consensus across the industry, Google doesn’t really need someone else’s collaboration when it comes to it. Chrome has approximately 70 percent market share. Google controls the world’s largest ad network. These ads appear on some of the world’s most popular sites, which Google also controls, such as Google.com (No. 1 in the world) and YouTube (No. 2). The ads also run on the world’s most popular operating system, Google’s Android, which has over 2.5 billion active users per month. There’s also Chrome OS, which is now the second most popular OS on the computer, and is especially successful in schools. The company regularly sneaks its own web “standards” first into Google’s ecosystem, such as the early deployments of WebP, VP8 / 9, and SPDY / HTTP / 2, and could, if it wanted to, do the same with FLoC.