The internet’s largest gatekeepers have had it with cookies, and they’re waging a war to wipe them off the face of the web. No company is more at the forefront of this uprising than Google, which wants to replace cookies with an alternative that “hides you in the crowd” to offer a more private online experience.
Cookies have been one of the web’s key cogwheels since the mid-1990s. But what started as an innocuous and convenient solution for e-commerce websites to remember what you had in your cart has over the years evolved into an easily accessible and vastly abused channel into users’ browsing activity for advertisers.
The concept of cookies has remained untouched forever. They’re little pieces of data that websites store in your browser to recognize you the next time you visit them. The catch is that the information they hold is not well-protected and malicious trackers are able to piggyback on them to learn about you and build a dossier on you for advertising. Cookies are the reason you see ads for items you left in your shopping cart, or for those flight tickets you were checking out.
While the intention behind cookies wasn’t originally to build an invasive window into our lives, it has, unfortunately, come to that — and now tech giants are making moves to get rid of them once and for all.
Apple already taken the first swing, and started blocking third-party cookies by default in the first half of 2020 — but Google doesn’t think that’s enough. It wants to replace cookies with a more privacy-preserving alternative: A technology of Google’s own design called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
FLoC is part of Google’s Privacy Sandbox project, a set of proposals to rewrite some of the internet’s most fundamental elements such as cookie-based advertising, captchas, etc., and ultimately build a more private web.
Instead of hoarding cookies, Google’s plan is to set loose a chain of algorithms in your browsing history that will figure out what you like and classify you in a group of users with similar interests. Advertisers will be able to target these groups for interest-based advertising without ever getting access to your data. Since FLoC processes your information locally, your data never actually leaves your browser — and therefore can’t be misused or sold off to brokers.
In theory, it’s a win-win situation. And for Google, pushing it out in the world won’t be a challenge. The search engine giant’s Chrome browser is the gateway to the internet for 65% of online users, and when Google rolls out FLoC for public testing next month, all of them will, without realizing it, automatically sign up for a tech that could potentially kill cookies.
Google FLoC solves several issues: It works on your machine, which means your information stays with you and advertisers can’t reach individuals and can only target interest-based cohorts, thereby eliminating the potential for data abuse. But as it solves these problems, FLoC could also introduce some new ones.
Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes Google FLoC is “better for privacy than the current state of the art,” but there’s still a long road ahead. Most importantly, he says, other components of the internet, like browser fingerprinting and IP address targeting, will have to evolve in parallel to ensure FLoC doesn’t become the victim of the same loopholes that capitalized on cookies’ frail protections.
When you read the fine print, more cracks begin to appear in Google’s initial FLoC release. Since this tech can crawl through all of your browsing history, experts worry it will theoretically gather more data on you — even from websites that don’t have any sort of tracking mechanisms in the first place. In response to these concerns, Jessica Martin, Google’s Asia-Pacific head of privacy, says the current plan “is to only use websites that have tracking enabled or are already doing display advertising.”
Sites will have the option to opt out of this system, but to do so, they’ll have to go out of their way to add a line of code to their webpages. Unlike cookies or third-party trackers, you also won’t be able to fine-tune or delete what FLoC collects in any way if you’re using Google Chrome.
Martin adds that with the upcoming Chrome 90 update in April, Google will first offer a simple on/off switch and later plans to “expand on these controls in future Chrome releases as more proposals reach the origin trial stage” and as it receives industry feedback. Alternatively, people can choose to actively clear their browsing histories.
As users will have little control over FLoC tracking, there’s also the risk of it handing over the ability to reach vulnerable groups such as people going through financial hardships on a silver platter to advertisers. Although Google says it’s taking precautions to prevent this from happening, algorithms have historically gotten out of the hands of their makers.
“With FLoC, categories will be generated by an unsupervised machine learning process,” Cyphers told Digital Trends, “meaning that no central actor will control what kind of information gets encoded into them.”
User privacy isn’t the only concern experts are not sold on. Cookies are the backbone of the $330 billion digital advertising industry and replacing them will affect a wide swath of businesses, advertisers, startups, and more that rely on ad revenue. Google FLoC doesn’t offer the same level of access as cookies and if it’s successful, advertisers are at the risk of losing a significant chunk of their income.
Google claims “FLoC can provide an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies,” and that it’s 95 percent as effective as third-party cookies. However, advertisers say the company hasn’t been as transparent as it should when it comes to results, and it’s going ahead with the launch despite major complaints from advertising groups.
“It’s a big blow. The entire digital advertising ecosystem, as well as the ad-supported experiences it enables for consumers, was built on cookies and device-based IDs as open, interoperable standards,” said Jordan Mitchell, senior vice president of Privacy, Identity & Data at the IAB Tech Lab. “Just as if the human race lost access to electricity, advertisers, publishers and all the vendors supporting them now have to rethink and rebuild the systems and processes that power their digital businesses.”
Anudit Vikram, advertising technology firm MediaMath’s chief product 0fficer, agrees that FLoC would make it “more difficult” for advertisers to “engage in meaningful conversations with their customers.” But he remains optimistic and believes there’s a middle ground that can only be formed if everyone involved collaborates instead of just Google dictating the new rules of the web.
“We’ve been transparent and collaborative with our proposals for the Privacy Sandbox,” Martin said in a statement to Digital Trends, “and continue to call on the entire ecosystem — including advertisers, publishers, and ad tech companies — to continue to work to develop these privacy-preserving mechanisms and flag any use cases that they believe need to be addressed.”
Martin also cites the need for developing privacy mechanisms “that support the ads industry” and that are in line with people’s expectations. “While it may be hard to imagine how advertising on the web could be relevant and accurately measured without third-party cookies, ” she added, “we firmly believe that users want their identity and information private and safe as they browse the web.”
By replacing an open-source and interpretable cookie tech with a proprietary one, Google FLoC also threatens the foundation of the open web. If all goes as according to plan, Google could end up exerting a monopoly on an uncomfortably large portion of the internet: The browser (Chrome), the ad platform, and with FLoC, the tech that shapes who sees those ads.
What’s more, Google will continue to be able to track its billions of users however it wants through services like YouTube and Search, and it will have access to FLoC data and browsing history thanks to Chrome’s dominance — while most advertisers will not. FLoC and the demise of cookies could give Google an unfair advantage over its peers and put it in the position to bend the rules at its will.
The death of the cookie is inevitable and the industry is gearing up to switch to their own infrasturcture.
“As there has always been a skew in capabilities/values within the walled garden versus outside, this just makes that gap much wider, especially given Google’s footprint to enable personalized advertising within its own walled garden,” said Isaac Schechtman, a senior director at Iponweb, an ad tech firm.
These concerns have not gone unnoticed, though. They’ve landed Google’s Privacy Sandbox in regulatory trouble already. It’s under investigation by the U.K.’s competition watchdog, which in its report concluded that these proposals will turn “Chrome (or Chromium browsers) into the key bottleneck for ad tech.”
Whatever the outcome of Google’s efforts may be, the death of the cookie is inevitable and the industry is gearing up to switch to their own, custom tracking infrastructure to stay safe from any harsh updates like Google FLoC.
“Some publishers have adapted and found great success with business models that support both advertisers and their consumers. Others have not,” added Schechtman. “No technical solution can turn back the clock on these secular changes.”