By 2022, Google plans to block cookies on its Chrome browser, used by about 70 percent of global desktop computer owners, instead offering a solution that will protect privacy and still target ads. Even as privacy advocates find flaws in Google’s idea, advertising technology companies are joining forces to create tracking tools based on email addresses. Amazon has responded by blocking Chrome from collecting data on which users go to its websites. Politicians from around the world say Google’s move could hurt its rivals.
The Washington Post reports that, “cookies were written into early browsers to cut down on some of the inconveniences of surfing the Web” by allowing passwords to auto-fill or “websites to remember payment information.” The online ad industry realized it could use that “trail of breadcrumbs” but “privacy advocates have always criticized the model” and, increasingly, people downloaded ad blockers.
In 2017, Apple started limiting (and eventually blocked) third-party cookies from its Safari browser, a move soon followed by Mozilla’s Firefox. But, noted eMarketer, those two browsers make up less than 20 percent of the market.
Even Google chief executive Sundar Pichai “admitted during a 2019 congressional hearing that people don’t like to feel they’re being tracked around the Internet, despite that company’s reliance on advertising and tracking for about $180 billion a year in revenue.
In addition to pressure from rivals, Google has also faced attempts to regulate privacy, from the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act. But at independent ad tech consulting firm AdProfs, founder Ratko Vidakovic pointed out that, “you can fix your public perception while at the same time cementing your own dominance and growing your own market share.”
Google’s solution, which is wending its way through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is “a menagerie of bird-themed acronyms like FLoC, FLEDGE and TURTLEDOVE to describe their proposals for advertising without cookies.” Although Google doesn’t need W3C approval, Brave Software senior privacy researcher Peter Snyder noted that, doing so, “makes it seem less like a Google power play.”
The most developed idea is FLoC — Federated Learning of Cohorts — which allows the browser to watch what an individual does online and “then uses artificial intelligence to assign them to a cohort of several thousand people that the AI determines are interested in the same kinds of products.” Instead of buying access to individuals, advertisers pay for access to specific cohorts. Google said, “this system is 95 percent as effective at getting clicks as old-school cookie ads are for advertisers.”
Privacy advocates argue that the Chrome browser is still monitoring everyone’s web activity. Electronic Frontier Foundation researcher Bennett Cyphers noted that, “the technology will avoid the privacy risks of third-party cookies, but it will create new ones in the process.” Also unclear is “which websites will have access to a person’s cohort ID … [and] the system also raises the possibility of profiling based on race, allowing advertisers to discriminate against some people.”