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Google is trialling its first alternative to tracking cookies

cookies
(Image credit: Shutterstock / New Africa)

Google has begun to test a new alternative to third-party cookies, which it hopes will provide users with a greater level of privacy without destroying the underlying economics of the web. 

Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) is a new web technology housed within Google’s Privacy Sandbox project, which was launched in 2019 with the intention of tackling issues surrounding online privacy. 

According to Google, FLoC provides a way for advertisers to create bespoke campaigns, but without compromising the privacy of individuals. It does this by grouping thousands of people with similar browsing habits into so-called cohorts, which give advertisers a less-specific but still valuable target to aim at.

To ensure users aren’t targeted on the basis of sensitive browsing activity (e.g. visits to medical websites), Google says it has built in a mechanism for discarding certain cohorts, without monitoring the content the users had accessed.

Further, FLoC operates within the browser itself, on the user’s device, and so is able to assign cohorts without transmitting browsing history to Google or any other party.

The technology remains under development, but has now rolled out as a “developer origin trial” in Google Chrome. The company says it expects FLoC to evolve in line with feedback from this initial period of testing.

Within the last year or so, a number of major browsers have announced plans to block third-party cookies entirely, in an effort to improve user privacy.

Both Firefox and Safari already block cookies outright, but Google has taken much less of a hard line. Although Chrome will also outlaw third-party cookies, the ban won’t take full effect until early 2022.

“When other browsers started blocking third-party cookies by default, we were excited about the direction, but worried about the immediate impact,” wrote Marshall Vale, Product Manager for Privacy Sandbox, in a blog post.

“Excited because we absolutely need a more private web, and we know third-party cookies aren’t the long-term answer. Worried because today many publishers rely on cookie-based advertising to support their content efforts, and we had seen that cookie blocking was already spawning privacy-invasive workarounds that were even worse for user privacy.”

Without an appropriate alternative in place, Vale claims the elimination of third-party cookies is “irresponsible” and potentially even actively “harmful” to the free and open web.

However, not everyone shares Google’s perspective. A drive to preserve the ability of advertisers to target users, even if only in aggregate, was always bound to raise eyebrows, given the financial incentives at play.

With advertising making up more than 80% of Google’s revenue each year, the company is incentivized to find a way to prop up the online advertising industry in the post-cookies era. Skeptics might suggest Google is simply wielding the preservation of the free and open web as a handy justification.

According to privacy non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), meanwhile, although FLoC will solve a handful of privacy-related issues, others will be created in the process. Essentially, FLoC will give advertisers a different arsenal of tools to play with; it will just be about learning how best to use them.

As FLoC undergoes this first period of testing, we’ll get a better idea of both the positive and negative aspects of the technology, as well as what an eventual mass implementation will look like.

What’s clear, however, is the arrival of FLoC does not mark the end of the debate about web tracking and online privacy; quite the opposite.

Joel Khalili

Joel Khalili is a Staff Writer working across both TechRadar Pro and ITProPortal. He's interested in receiving pitches around cybersecurity, data privacy, cloud, storage, internet infrastructure, mobile, 5G and blockchain.