Google FLoC

Google plans to FLoC us all!

Google has announced that it does not intend to use the so-called universal identifiers (UID’s) for ad targeting, those IDs that the operators of the AdTech industry are striving to design in view of the gradual elimination of third-party cookies from the digital ecosystem will be made redundant within Google’s ecosystem. For the Industry, which has been working on alternatives for months, this is a major setback. As google will start testing its new ad system (FLoC) with advertisers in the months to come, this raises some big questions.

Google has announced the tests of an alternative solution to cookies and to IDs called Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC , based on a technology that allows the effective elimination of third-party cookies from ad techniques, making anonymous users within large groups of people. Currently, cookies (and some of these planned universal IDs) track users by their individual browsing behavior as they move from one website to another. In FLoC, on the other hand, a person’s browser would take all the data generated by that navigation and place this information in a large data pot of people with similar browsing behavior. Instead of being able to target ads to each person individually, Google would allow advertisers to target these data jars to multiple users.

With similar interests (cohorts), Chrome intends to make FLoC-based cohorts available for testing in the next release this month (Chrome version 90).

Numerous unknowns to decide whether Google’s new ad system protects privacy

a. Thresholds not defined

Google’s new ad system will group users who share similar ad targeting characteristics into “interest groups”. But it has not yet defined the minimum threshold for the size of an interest group and the degree of uniqueness of characteristics of users within it.

Also, Google plans to prevent setting a minimum number of people that can be shown a particular ad, to avoid micro-targeting. But, according to Google, this number is not yet defined.

b. Privacy technology not yet defined

As a general note, and as Google acknowledges, there is little technical detail in Google’s documents. As an example, Google plans to use what it calls “worklets” to isolate each auction on the user device, so that the data used in each is not linked. This relies on a currently undefined system of “worklets”. There is no detail on how these will work.

Competition and self-favoritism

Google said that it would not use unique identifiers (UIDs) in its own advertising products. Still, at least three competition and self-favoritism questions arise:

a. It is not clear whether this also means that Google’s ad products will cease to use the data it collects about users who use Google services, or about users who surf websites and use apps that rely on various Google infrastructure and products. It may be possible that Google can do so without using identifiers.

If so, then Google will continue to benefit from its vast internal data free-for-all, but will close off the external data that allowed competitors to operate in the conventional online advertising system.

b. it may be that Google’s ownership of Chrome browser allows it to create the most valuable interest groups, and thereby dominate the new market of interest groups. Google would have a great ability to create high value interest groups if the browser can create interest groups.

Google’s claim that “the browser will only allow the joinAdInterestGroup() operation with the permission of both the website being visited and the group’s owner.” This shows that Google cannot create interest groups except where it owns the sites concerned or has the permission of the owner of that site. Still not clear at the moment.

The impact of the new currency of “interest groups” on publishers

Google’s plan will create a new market for interest groups. This is potentially valuable for publishers as with the new ad system, cross-site tracking and audience leakage will presumably no longer happen, protecting unwary publishers from continuous audience data leakage to other companies. Nevertheless, the question of whether Chrome itself can create interest groups is critically important. Publishers should demand clarity whether Chrome is able to create its own interest groups.

Despite of Google’s launch of this new ad system in the next few months, very little details has been published. It is impossible to know whether Google’s new approach will protect privacy, or whether it will be to Googles’ advantage. If Google really wants to change the direction of consumer privacy, then it should start by clarifying what they think “privacy” really means.

Google’s decision to stop supporting third-party cookies and the workaround user IDs both within and outside of its ecosystem will not stop the AdTech industry from continuing to use such identifiers on the open web. However, Google’s sheer scale and dominance of both the web and the programmatic ecosystem will make it difficult for such initiatives to scale. 

For more info about this subject, read my previous articles 1 and 2

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