Google is in the final stages of releasing a new user data collection tool for Chrome to replace third-party cookies. Called FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts), the tool will collect your internet browsing history and assign you to a cohort of users. Google says that FLoC is a technology that will improve user privacy while still allowing it to sell personalized ads online, which increases its bottom line.
FLoC has received plenty of criticism so far, just as Google started a pilot that automatically enrolls many Chrome users into FLoC tracking without their knowledge. The fact that the test isn’t opt-in for users is pretty telling of Google’s intention to have FLoC enabled by default. As it is right now, you won’t find FLoC-blocking language in the Settings app to prevent Google from tracking you with the tech if you get recruited in the pilot. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) created a website to tell you if you’re “FLoCed,” and there is a way to opt out of tracking — you have to disable third-party cookies in Chrome. The EFF has voiced its FLoC concerns quite loudly in the past few weeks, explaining why the tech is a terrible idea for users, potentially leading to privacy issues.
Google’s competitors have started deploying anti-FLoC products. DuckDuckGo Search will disable FLoC tracking by default, and the company updated its Chrome extension to block FLoC. Brave, the private browser that pays you to see ads, will also block FLoC tracking online. That’s not a surprise. But the company also penned a lengthy blog post to explain why FLoC is bad for privacy, and everyone should opt out of it, whether it’s end-users or websites.
Peter Snyder, Senior Privacy Researcher at Brave, and Brendan Eich, CEO and co-founder of Brave, co-authored the blog post explaining “why Brave disables FLoC.”
They noted that companies are finally forced to respect user privacy, adding that it’s “disappointing to see Google, instead of taking the present opportunity to help design and build a user-first, privacy-first Web, proposing and immediately shipping in Chrome a set of smaller, ad-tech-conserving changes, which explicitly prioritize maintaining the structure of the Web advertising ecosystem as Google sees it.”
The two Brave execs also provided a few examples where FLoC will impact users’ privacy and websites because of Google’s way of setting the rules for what privacy means.
Chrome FLoC will collect all user data, ignoring whether the user wants to share any of it. Again, the service will be opt-out, meaning people will have to block data collection actively.
Google defends FLoC as not privacy-harming because interest cohorts are designed to be not unique to a user, using k-anonymity protections. This shows a mistaken idea of what privacy is. Many things about a person are i) not unique, but still ii) personal and important, and shouldn’t be shared without consent. Whether I prefer to wear ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ clothes, whether I live according to my professed religion, whether I believe vaccines are a scam, or whether I am a gun owner, or a Brony-fan, or a million other things, are all aspects of our lives that we might like to share with some people but not others, and under our terms and control.
Google will set rules to prevent sensitive data collection, which will not apply to everyone:
The idea of creating a global list of ‘sensitive categories’ is illogical and immoral. Whether a behavior is ‘sensitive’ varies wildly across people. One’s mom may not find her interest in ‘women’s clothes’ a private part of her identity, but one’s dad might (or might not! but, plainly, Google isn’t the appropriate party to make that choice). Similarly, an adult happily expecting a child might not find their interest in ‘baby goods’ particularly sensitive, but a scared and nervous teenager might. More broadly, interests that are banal to one person, might be sensitive, private or even dangerous to another person.
FLoC might allow some sites to spy on their competitors and potentially harm business:
Here is a synthetic but demonstrative example. Say I run a website selling polka music, and I serve a dedicated community of die-hard polka fans. My site is successful because I’ve identified a niche market that is poorly served elsewhere, which allows me to charge higher than, say, Amazon prices. However, FLoC may stick users browsing in Chrome in a ‘polka music lover’ cohort, and begin having my users broadcast their ‘polka love’ to other sites, including Amazon. Amazon could then peel off my polka-record buyers, leaving me worse off.
The Brave execs also pointed out that FLoC is designed to be enabled by default, urging everyone to disable it. “We suspect that Google has made FLoC opt-out (for sites and users) because Google knows that an opt-in, privacy harming system would likely never reach the scale needed to induce advertisers to use it.”
Chrome users looking for a browser alternative built on the same Chromium engine that can look and feel like Chrome, complete with Chrome extensions support, can take Brave out for a spin.