Things don’t look good for FLoC

The alternative to third-party cookies has been panned by privacy-focused companies. But cookies aren't dead.

Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), Google’s answer to the proliferation of cookies across the web from all sorts of third-party sites, has not been received warmly by the more security-conscious in the software world. The current outline of FLoC from Google feels more like a play to consolidate data within Google’s walls than it feels like a privacy-protection policy for individual consumers.

And maybe that’s why several independent, privacy-focused browsers have objected to FLoC and promise to disable the tracker in their software, including Vivaldi, DuckDuckGo, and Brave. Several more companies, including Opera, Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple, and news site The Guardian have opted out of the tool’s beta test. There’s a proposal in the WordPress community to treat FLoC as a security threat, which could result in up to 40% of websites not supporting the tool by default. 

And for now, the most concerning to FLoC’s success, is that Google won’t test the tools in European countries where GDPR applies—which is pretty suspicious considering the legal implications of gathering and selling data under those restrictions.

Google blocking third-party cookies doesn’t feel too awful for publishers and website owners. According to The Verge, it means that the cookies that the Chrome browser will allow will be first-party, meaning that your ecommerce site will still be able to tell which shopper left items in their carts. It’ll also mean that membership sites will be able to track logged-in users since membership sites rely on cookies to track member movements from page to page.

The changes may have triggered an overall change in how publishing companies approach their data collection: first-party data has always been king, but the changes brought on by these new privacy measures have changed the game. Consider how StackOverflow was purchased by Prosus for $1.8 billion on June 2, 2021. In addition to their successful enterprise tools, the company has mounds of first-party data—in the form of forum memberships—to take advantage of. One day later, Blackstone announced that it had purchased IDG, a group of tech publications that would increase access to first-party data.

Don’t worry, ad tech will benefit, too

Google will largely leave defining who belongs to which FLoC up to ad tech companies. Again, according to The Verge, 

Chrome itself isn’t assigning any content labels to these FloCs; Google is leaving that to the ad tech industry to figure out. So you won’t be able to open up a privacy page inside Chrome and see what it thinks you’re interested in (though there’s theoretically nothing stopping a third-party website from telling you).

Dieter Bohn, Google Chrome FLoC: how it replaces cookies and what it means for privacy

What is worrisome is that ad tech companies will have the data to sort people and their data into cohorts. This leaves a lot of power in the hands of the people who profit off of selling you things.

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Tamara Scott is a writer and content strategist based in Nashville. With a background in English education, she plans and writes clear, instructive content for marketers and technology users of all skill levels. Follow @t_scottie