FLoC Has Few Friends in the Tech World

Will Apple herd the flock to greener pastures?

Earlier this year, we wrote about Google’s plans to stop tracking web-browsing traffic after it phases out cookies from its Chrome browser, beginning in early 2022 (see That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles).

In March, Google began testing FLoC technology, short for Federated Learning of Cohorts, in its Chrome browser as a replacement for its classic third-party cookies. The initial trial turned on FLoC for a small percentage of Chrome users in 10 countries — the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Philippines. Those involved were automatically placed in the trial and were not notified, but could opt out by turning off third-party cookies. The experiment didn’t include people in the UK or the EU to avoid conflict with European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

FLoC is being developed as a part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative, which is a browser that has FLoC enabled to collect information about users’ browsing habits and assign them to a “cohort” or group. This means people with similar browsing habits would be sorted into the same cohort. Each person’s browser will have a cohort ID that tells websites and advertisers which group they belong to.

Google’s proposal suggests that at least a few thousand people should belong to each cohort, although that’s not a guarantee. Rather than having advertisers collect users’ browsing history to build an individual profile, Google will store that data locally and have the browser give a list of a person’s interests to advertisers when asked, using an API for advertisers to serve relevant ads.

FLoC has been criticized for still encouraging tracking under the guise of a new name. Few companies are supporting Google’s decision to replace cookies with something that some consider more devious. Several of its rivals have come out against FLoC including GitHub, DuckDuckGo and WordPress. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also vehemently opposed the plan, declaring “Google’s FLoC is a terrible idea”; it has even set up an amifloced.org portal that lets users know if the feature is enabled on their browser. Every major browser based on Google’s open-source Chromium platform has decided not to use FLoC, including Microsoft Edge, Vivaldi, Brave and Opera. Google’s own Chrome is the one notable exception.

The real problem that needs to be addressed is whether FLoC prevents “fingerprinting”, where unique digital identities for individuals can be created by harvesting the digital trails left online. There’s something deeply unnerving about Chrome’s FLoC trial: it’s difficult to find any justification for Google enrolling people without their consent.

With more noise about customer privacy than ever and a growing range of protections available to users, 2021 is proving to be a turning point in privacy. FLoC is currently rolling out as a trial in Chrome and is already enabled on a small number of Chrome browsers. Unless and until the digital ad industry is forced to rethink its approach, the responsibility rests with individuals to take control of their own privacy, by determining which apps and browsers they use.

The main difficulty for users is that data harvesting isn’t that easy to notice — the harms are not obvious to those who benefit from excellent and often free services, and the technology options are complicated. Public nervousness is clear, with 42% of Internet users worldwide between 16 and 64 years old reporting that they use an ad blocker and 27% in the US. However, few people will be able to assess for themselves whether FLoC is a friend or a foe.

Inevitably, this complexity means consumers will place strong reliance on brand trust and recommendations through word of mouth, following influential friends. The former means several technology players may be facing an interesting dynamic over the next couple of years, as Apple becomes increasingly assertive against Facebook, and Google and other advertising players look to navigate the choppy waters between the two.

Other areas of the online advertising technology industry have created alternative approaches to FLoC. The difficulty for them is that Google Chrome has a worldwide market share of 64%, obviously with an extremely strong position on Android devices, but also on PCs and Mac computers. Although browser market share can change significantly, Google is in a position to try to make FLoC a standard approach by pushing ahead in spite of industry opposition, and betting that few customers will worry enough to change browser. People may even welcome FLoC as a relief from the endless clicks to accept or reject cookies.

Companies like Google, Facebook and other tech companies that profit from targeted ads are keen to get a replacement for cookies, which now have a bad reputation with consumers. Given all the challenges, we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Apple’s marketing that shapes the public’s views most strongly over the next few years, determining whether FLoC and other similar proposals have a future or not.