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Google begins testing FLoC to replace cookies: what it means for privacy

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Google has announced that it is implementing Federated Cohort Learning (FLoC), which is an essential part of its Privacy Sandbox for Chrome project. FLoC is presented as an alternative to third-party cookies for advertising targeting. It runs locally and categorizes your surfing behavior that groups like-minded users into a cohort. This will allow users to hide among crowds of people with similar interests and search histories. The cohort allows advertisers to target people based on their interests while maintaining the privacy of individual users.

Through an article on its Web Developers Blog, Google announced that it will soon prevent websites from saving third-party cookies. The software giant is currently testing FLoC in India, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United States. Google plans to roll out the trial version in other regions eventually. Google is not testing FLoC in the EU due to its General Data Protection Regulation (it is still unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered personal data according to the rules). Marshall Vale, product manager for Privacy Sandbox, said in a Tweeter that it deploys the test version of FLoC only in certain markets to limit the size of the initial tests and that the team that undertakes the tests of FLoC is “100% committed to the Privacy Sandbox in Europe”.

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Vale detailed how FLoC works in a blog post stating that it is a “new approach to interest-based advertising that both improves privacy and gives publishers a tool they need. need for viable advertising business models ”. The new system will group together users with similar interests, offering advertisers the benefits of targeted marketing and providing high user privacy. Users will be part of a larger group called cohorts defined by similarities in browsing history.

FLoC will also not share users’ browsing data with Google or any other advertiser. The cohort is identified by a special number (FLoC ID) which is the only item shared at the request of a website. Chrome will also not share the cohorts it deems sensitive. So, if users in a cohort access websites with sensitive content such as religious or political content at a high rate, FLoC will not share that data with advertisers.

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The search giant will also allow users to voluntarily register for FLoC trials, as with all other Privacy Sandbox trials. Google also notes that its own ad spaces will have the same access to FLoC credentials as third-party advertisers. A report published on Google’s blog in January of this year details how, thanks to the FLoC system, “advertisers can expect to see at least 95% of conversions in dollars spent compared to cookie-based advertising.” In January 2020, Google announced that it would phase out third-party web tracking cookies on its Chrome browser. Safari announced in March 2020 that the browser would soon block third-party cookies through its Intelligent Tracking Prevention System (ITP). Firefox has also followed suit by cracking down on supercookies after announcing its Firefox 85 update in January 2021.

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Most browsers except Chrome have completely blocked third-party ads or cookies. Instead, Chrome is looking for ways to make users a little less vulnerable to cookies with FLoC. Google cannot completely block cookies on its browser as this is the company’s main source of revenue. Google holds the majority of market share through Chrome in the browser spectrum and Google Ad Sense in the advertising spectrum. FLoC could become a standard to prevent third-party cookies in the future.

Earlier this year, Google’s plan to block cookies met with concerns from the US Department of Justice. The plan can wreak havoc on many smaller rivals with the loss of the data collection tool.

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