Millions of people are already part of a global experiment to eradicate cookies once and for all. Since last month, Google has been testing new browser-based technology in Chrome that could disrupt the global advertising industry. Most of those involved in the trial probably don’t even realize it, but as the project gains momentum, critical voices are ringing the alarm bells.
Regulators in Germany, France and Belgium are reviewing all of Google’s proposals. At the same time, some of the biggest websites in the world have decided to skip Google’s trials altogether, with a number of companies developing ways for people to bypass the system.
The system, known as Federated Cohort Learning (FLoC), is part of the larger Privacy sandbox plan that will end third-party advertising cookies in early 2022. There are basically three ways for websites to choose which ads to show you. You might see an ad for a pair of sneakers because you put them in a basket last week; if you read an article about cars, the ads can also be about cars; or the advertisements you see may be based on your interests. FLoC, like third-party cookies, treats advertising based on what you like.
Currently, cookies allow advertisers to show you advertisements that are specific to you because they are based on your individual browsing history. FLoC is designed to get rid of this individual targeting by expanding the network. If you are using FLoC, Chrome will collect your web history and compare it to other people’s habits. You will then be grouped into a group, or cohort, with thousands of other people like you. Advertisers can then target entire groups of people rather than specific individuals.
It is not only the magnitude of the change, but also who is causing it. Google, whose parent company Alphabet introduced record sales of $ 55 billion in the past three months, dominates the global advertising industry. Regulators are naturally nervous.
“FLoC technology raises several questions regarding the legal requirements of GDPR,” says Johannes Caspar, the data protection commissioner in Hamburg, Germany. “The implementation of users in FLoCs could be considered an act of processing personal data. And that requires freely given consent and clear and transparent information about these operations. In short: Google needs to make sure people actively choose to use FLoC rather than turning on the default system in Chrome. Caspar adds that there are risks in how the cohorts might “allow conclusions” about people’s browsing behavior and the specificity of FLoC cohorts.
And it’s not just German regulators who are worried about FLoC. A spokesperson for the National Commission for Informatics and Freedoms, or CNIL, the French data regulator, says he is “particularly attentive” to technologies likely to replace cookies, because they may require access to information already stored on user devices. The CNIL is clear that such a system would require “specific, informed and unambiguous consent”. If Google fails to do this, it could prove costly. In December 2020, the French regulator Google fined $ 120 million for not having obtained permission from people before using cookies.
Other regulators are more concerned about antitrust laws. In Belgium, officials are keen to understand how competitive future systems are and how they comply with data protection laws. In the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority and data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office, have been investigating Google’s proposals since January. And the Irish Data Protection Commission, which has responsibility for many large tech companies with European headquarters in Dublin, said it had consulted Google on the proposals.
Google is familiar with FLoCs Potential pitfalls. For example, the technology has not yet been tested in the European Union. “EU privacy law sets high standards for transparency and user control, and that’s what we envision for FLoC,” said Marshall Vale, Chrome Product Manager at Google. “We know that the contribution of data protection authorities is essential to achieve this, which is why we have started discussions at an early stage on the technology and our projects.” Google has already announced plans to introduce tools that will allow people not to be placed in FLoC cohorts.