By Mathieu Pollet
(EurActiv) — Faced with criticism from competitors and regulators, Google has postponed for mid-2023 its plan to put in place an alternative to third-party cookies, the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), acknowledging the need for more time and debate.
The online giant announced on 24 June that it will continue supporting third-party cookies for two more years, until mid-2023 rather than until the initial 2022 deadline.
Google is banking on the supposedly less intrusive and privacy-friendly FLoC to replace third-party cookies but several voices have raised concerns regarding Google’s proposed solution.
The tech giant’s mechanism, which is the flagship of the Privacy Sandbox initiative, aims to respect users’ privacy and preserve the business model of targeted advertising by no longer tracking an individual’s isolated browsing data, but by integrating it into a group with similar behaviour called “cohorts”.
On paper, only the cohort will be identifiable and not the individual user.
“This approach effectively masks individuals ‘within a group’ and uses on-device processing to keep an individual’s web history on the browser private,” Google explained in January.
“When we use FLoC to reach Google affinity audiences, the results show that on average, advertisers can generate at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent compared to cookie-based targeting,” the US company added.
Contacted by EURACTIV, Google acknowledged that more time and a discussion between all stakeholders is needed. The tech giant also welcomed the feedback it received to improve its proposals.
“We need to move forward at a reasonable pace to allow for public discussion of appropriate solutions, continued engagement with regulators, and to allow publishers and the advertising industry as a whole to migrate their services,” Google noted in a statement.
Web players, publishers and advertisers whose business model is today largely based on targeted advertising or, on the contrary, on its absence, are worried about the upheaval that Google – given its position on the market – could bring about.
“Ad identifiers like cookies critically help advertisers measure if their ads work, optimize ad campaigns and limit ad repetition,” Garrett Johnson, associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom Business School, told EURACTIV.
“I worry that doing away with cookies and personalized ads does real harm to the websites people visit every day,” said Johnson, who is also welcoming the alternative.
Given the dominant position of the search engine, Google’s change of policy will have far-reaching consequences on the ad tech ecosystem.
The UK’s competition authority, CMA, expressed concern that “in the absence of regulatory oversight and review, Google’s alternatives may be developed and implemented in a way that hinders competition in the digital advertising markets.”
But Google has confirmed that it would not give preferential treatment or advantages to its own advertising products once third-party cookies are removed, and has even offered several undertakings “the opportunity to engage with a regulator whose mandate is to promote competition for the benefit of consumers.”
At present, FLoC is not being tested in Europe and is not expected to be tested in the immediate future, while the first evaluation phase is due to end in a few weeks, Google told EURACTIV.
A ‘false good idea’ for better privacy
Concerns have mainly been raised on the privacy front, particularly by some of Google’s competitors – browsers and search engine providers that are best known for their commitments in this area.
According to French search engine company Qwant, FLoC is a “false good idea” and choosing between Google’s alternative and cookies is really a “false debate”.
“The collective nature of the analysis does not change much: it will be easy to transcribe the user’s ID to find out his or her cohort, and to deduce the attributes assigned to him or her,” Qwant’s public affairs director, Sébastien Ménard, said in an opinion piece.
Instead, Qwant is calling for the rejection of “tracking in its entirety, because it aims to influence our decisions and our knowledge according to a more or less relevant profile” and because it “accentuates the phenomenon of algorithmic confinement.”
Web browser developer Mozilla has come to the same conclusion, noting in an analysis of Google’s alternative published on 10 June that “a relatively small amount of information is needed to identify an individual or at least reduce the FLoC cohort to a few people”.
Faced with these concerns, Google has already proposed several changes, in particular, a minimum threshold in terms of staffing for cohorts and a special regime for websites that are deemed “sensitive”. Precautions that Mozilla still considers “insufficient”.
Meanwhile, the Vivaldi web browser has pledged to “continue to address pervasive privacy issues”, including FLoC. DuckDuckGo, for its part, launched an extension for the Chrome browser in April that should block FLoC tracking.