Eavesdropper: Birds of a feather, FLoC together

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March 8, 2021 3:30 AM

Does user privacy mean more power for Google?

While Google had announced a similar initiative in 2019 under its privacy sandbox, it will be fully deploying its solution in 2022.While Google had announced a similar initiative in 2019 under its privacy sandbox, it will be fully deploying its solution in 2022.

Prior to early2000s, the best way to trace consumer preferences was to run ads and then measure the sales response or conduct elaborate surveys. The ingenuity of modern day tech giants has been to reduce this to a few clicks and cookies. Internet browsers allowed websites to drop cookies to understand who the consumer is and what all she is buying. If you are more digitally attuned as a company, you can enable cross-site tracking and know more about the consumer. However, when internet was developing, little attention was paid to consumer privacy.

Consumers still have little choice but to agree to a website deploying cookies, otherwise, access is denied. Most websites do not allow users to deploy ad blockers either. However, with an increased focus on user privacy, behaviour and attitude towards user tracking has been changing. Browsers have been deploying mechanisms to limit consumer tracking. Apple in 2017 announced that it would deploy intelligent tracking protection to avoid websites to have cookies that are operational beyond 24 hours, Firefox followed it up in 2018 with a complete ban on third-party cookies. While Google had announced a similar initiative in 2019 under its privacy sandbox, it will be fully deploying its solution in 2022.

Last year, the company announced limiting cross-site tracking, which helps build elaborate user profiles for ad targeting. Google may be the last to the game, but given that it controls 64% of the market, as per Statcounter data—in contrast, Apple’s Safari has 20%, and Mozilla’s Firefox has 4% market share—it would mean crumbling of the cookie business. In place of this, Google is trying to introduce Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) model. In a blog, last month, Google said that FLoC can provide “effective replacement of third-party cookies” by allowing “at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.” Under the new system, instead of tracking individual users, Google’s AI & ML algorithms would create groups of people or cohorts based on search preferences. For instance, while, at present, tracking history is based on individual data—if one browses airfare from destination A to B, all ads change to this—the new system would focus on defining a specific cohort, like people looking at airfare or people searching for restaurants in a specific area, and then display ads. The user data and browsing history, in this case, would be saved on the user’s system and would not be available to advertisers. Google has also been instituting changes like IP protection and fraud protection to save users from illegal tracking and ad fraud schemes.

As revolutionary as FLoC may sound, it comes with its own set of issues. The dependence of advertisers on Google will certainly increase, and even though Google has said that the system would be open-access, it has been facing criticism from the industry on the way it has been conducting trials. Besides, this doesn’t mean that companies would not be able to track users. Requiring logins or pushing newsletters may become a common feature for most companies. They may also initiate collaborations with other companies to share user data, but that would fall under data protection laws. So, browsing will surely become more privacy-focused.

Not just browsers, Google is trying to do the same for its Android-OS based devices. While Apple has already instituted this change in its new iOS 14—this is also a point of contention with Facebook—Google is contemplating something similar. However, the privacy focus can only work if the process is participative, and even the smaller advertisers have a say and are not burdened by prohibitive costs, which would be a case if they have to create one mechanism for Google and another for Apple. Users also need to be given a choice. Brave, a new browsing service rewards users for opting-in to watch advertisements. The move towards privacy also entails consensus building and companies not creating walled gardens.

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