Google promised a few weeks ago that it would not develop new user-tracking tools once it kills third-party cookies in the near future. Cookies are part of the current web-browsing experience on desktop and mobile. They’re meant to help with the functionality of certain websites, but are often used to track users across those very same websites. Mozilla announced recently that Firefox would make it impossible for websites to track users with cookies, and Google wants to phase them out as soon as next year as well.
Google is developing a different way to offer targeted ads that doesn’t involve cookies. It’s called FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts), and it will be tested on Chrome users soon. But people who don’t want to be tracked via FLoC can opt out of it.
The idea behind FLoC seems simple enough. Targeted ads will use a tracking system that identifies groups of people with common interests rather than individual identifiers. This could improve user privacy without impacting ad revenue. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) thinks that Google’s FLoC is “a terrible idea.”
The EFF has been championing the civil liberties of internet users for years, and has often criticized big technology companies for their questionable decisions. The EFF says that Google makes it sound like the cookie has to be replaced with a new user tracking technology. The better solution would be ditching targeted ads altogether, the non-profit says, as FLoC could lead to other privacy-infringing side-effects, such as fingerprinting or discrimination and predatory advertising. The EFF urged Google not to go forward with FLoC deployment, arguing that it will still favor advertisers rather than end-users.
Google announced it would start testing FLoC in March, although Chrome users won’t know whether or not they’re included in these experiments. Opting out is easy, Android Police explains. Just head to Chrome’s Settings menu, choose Privacy and Security > Cookies and other site data > Block third-party cookies.
In other words, people who do not want to be tracked with cookies probably have the FLoC block enabled already, which means they won’t be included in FLoC tests. Google will add a switch to Chrome browsers to opt out of FLoC and Privacy Sandbox. It’s surprising that a tracking feature meant to improve one’s privacy doesn’t have an opt-out button before it rolls out. The fact that Google doesn’t include a different toggle for FLoC tracking seems to be an indication that Google doesn’t want users to opt out of FLoC tracking, at least not yet. If everybody opts out of FLoC tracking before Google gets to test it in the wild, the company won’t be able to prove that it works.