Google promises it won’t build a backdoor for Chrome’s FLoC ad targeting
Google now has a near-monopoly on web browsers, search engines, and online advertising. The company’s massive reach is already resulting in an antitrust lawsuit from the United States Department of Justice, and its new Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) technology isn’t helping the situation. FLoC was intended to be a replacement for tracking cookies, which have been used for years to track people across websites. And now, Google is promising that it definitely won’t build additional tracking methods into the Chrome browser for itself.
Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) is a new feature being tested in Google Chrome, which allows targeted advertisements without using cross-site tracking cookies (which many browsers and ad-blockers no longer allow). FLoC looks at your browsing history and places you into an ad targeting group based on your behavior. The technology is intended to be more private than cross-site tracking cookies, because there are no longer individual profiles but only targeting groups. Even then, it has been criticized for being enabled by default and allowing other types of tracking.
It’s also possible Google could bypass FLoC entirely, and use the browser histories and other data synced to Google accounts for serving ads. This would give Google an unfair advantage over other advertising providers, but the company now promises it won’t do that. Jerry Dischler, Google’s VP for advertising, said during a virtual marketing event recently that “we’ll be using these [Privacy Sandbox] APIs for our own ads and measurement products just like everyone else, and we will not build any backdoors for ourselves.”
That might be good news for other advertising companies, but it doesn’t fix the mess FLoC has become. Publishers and advertisers are hesitant to say goodbye to cross-site tracking cookies, and nearly every other web browser that was already blocking trackers is promising to disable FLoC. Vivaldi Browser said “it does not protect privacy and it certainly is not beneficial to users,” while Brave called it “bad for Web users, bad for sites, and a bad direction for the Web in general.” Microsoft, Apple, and Mozilla are still deciding if they will bring FloC to their browsers in the future — it’s not available in Safari or Firefox right now, and Microsoft has turned it off in Edge.
Google’s promise to follow its own rules might not be convincing enough, especially when the Chrome browser that Google distributes (different from Chromium) is not open-source, so it wouldn’t be difficult to hide additional tracking behavior in the browser. Google could also change its mind at any time, especially if investors and executives are pressured to generate more advertising revenue.