Google recently announced that it would no longer support third-party cookies and has introduced its own alternative ad tracking technology called FloC. However, many browser and content management systems (CMS) are skeptical about deploying Google’s new tech due to privacy concerns. WordPress has already released code that will allow developers to block FloC from their websites, and other browsers such as Vivaldi, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Brave have made public their plans to protect their users from “getting FloC’ed.”
FloC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts, which is a type of consumer tracking technology that learns about a specific group’s internet activity and how to create ads and experiences to improve engagements and conversions. Google claims that this protects user privacy by placing users into these groups anonymously, based solely on their interests, clicks, and other factors. FloC uses machine learning analytics to acquire information about a user’s internet activity and instead of uploading sensitive information to data centers, it runs and stores its data client-side.
The elimination of third-party cookies and the widespread distrust of Google FloC encourages advertisers to find other ways to increase conversions without violating user privacy. Despite the fact that WordPress is vocal about their opposition to FloC, developers can choose to use it on their websites using the CMS. However, WordPress has released a few lines of code that will prevent FloC from functioning, and several other developers have already released WordPress plugins that will disable FloC.
There are several reasons why users and developers should be concerned about FloC. Firstly, the practice of collecting several discrete pieces of information about users’ browsing activity in order to create a unique identifier is known as fingerprinting. FloC cohorts will supposedly comprise thousands of users, and a cohort ID should not be able to distinguish individuals from the group. However, this provides a breeding ground for bad actors to use this fingerprinting to further extrapolate information about individuals.
Secondly, in order for FloC to be useful for advertisers, a cohort has to be able to reveal information about users’ behavior. Based on a cohort ID, every site that a user visits will already have an idea about who they are without having to do any of the work to track user activity across the internet. In this way, FloC is just like third-party cookies on a much larger scale.
Thirdly, while Google claims that FloC will not have access to the identity of individuals, this becomes a possibility as cohorts become smaller and more targeted. Cohorts become more specific the more websites an individual visits, with a new cohort being created every time you visit another website, with less and less users within a specific cohort. This paves the way for predatory targeting to become pervasive.
Fourthly, FloC uses an unsupervised algorithm to create its cohorts of common interests and behaviors that is inherently linked to identifying factors and sensitive characteristics. Therefore, FloC will be unable to distinguish between demographics like gender, ethnicity, age, income and even factors like mental health and sexual orientation. These groupings will inevitably lead to discrimination and give bad actors the ability to prey on vulnerable cohorts.
Lastly, the biggest threat that FloC creates is to users’ freedom to choose their digital experiences. By democratizing browsing activities, users will be unable to have uncurated web experiences. Advertisers and search engines will be able to tailor a user’s results according to their previous browsing activities and other factors that can be established through the creation of cohorts.
In conclusion, while many brands are looking for tracking alternatives to help them create meaningful and engaging content, there are many companies experimenting with new ways to collect user data based on browsing history and activity. Unfortunately, these new solutions are not all that different from third-party cookies, including Google FloC. With user privacy at the heart of their strategy, WordPress is not keen on keeping FloC around for long. However, if developers do want to use it for ad tracking purposes, it is possible to enable FloC’s functioning. The internet has become one big ad experience that feeds off of the information of its users. Ad tracking tech has no place in a free and open web, and that is the message that WordPress and others are trying to get across.