FLoC: Suitable Alternative to Third-Party Cookies?

Google has come up with a machine learning-based initiative FLoC (Federated Learning of Cohorts) just as third-party cookies phase out. While the “cookie apocalypse” has flummoxed some marketers, many see FLoC as a way to get back in the game. 

How Does FLoC Work?

As a privacy-focused solution, the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) delivers relevant ads based on clustering large groups of people with similar interests. According to Google, this enhances user privacy at the individual level. Ad conversions per dollar with this replacement could go to “at least 95% of the figures that cookie-based advertising hits.” 

With FLoC, users’ browsing patterns are studied anonymously and then grouped into particular “cohorts.” A cohort is a group of users with shared commonalities and identifiers, like users of similar age group or geographic location. Following this process, brands (or their partners) serve ads based on cohorts, not individual data.

Using Algorithms to Define Cohorts

FLoC is part of the Chrome browser source code and enables cookie-less, consent-less ad targeting. Chrome uses algorithms to define a large number of cohorts on the basis of shared demographic traits like browsing history, interests, geographic location, age and gender. It will access individual browsing history and assign users to particular cohorts. 

Chrome won’t assign users to small cohorts; rather, each will have 1000+ web users with similar browsing history. Websites can get the cohort ID from the browser and place ads accordingly. While cookie-based targeting is more about individual user data, FLoC service is about profiling groups, leading to more anonymous targeting.

Ahead: Interest-based Advertising

Even though Google is “extremely confident” with FLoC service modeled on Privacy Sandbox API, industry experts have noted this may be just the beginning. Chetna Bindra, group product manager for user trust and privacy at Google, notes, “It is absolutely not the final or the singular proposal to replace third-party cookies … There won’t be one final API that will go forward, it will be a collection of them that allows for things like interest-based advertising, as well as for measurement use cases, where it’s critical to be able to ensure that advertisers can measure the effectiveness of their ads.” 

Although this behavioral targeting idea intrigues some observers, others think it’s much “worse” than cookie tracking. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is not a fan of FLoC, citing the potential to give birth to new challenges like discrimination and predatory targeting. It also noted that FLoC might as well be “like a succinct summary of your recent activity on the Web.” 

Understanding Concerns About FLoC

Though the FLoC initiative is still in the trial phase, be aware of privacy and security concerns like these as you evaluate the proposal.

Tracking users via cohorts: Profiling individual users into groups can work as user identifiers, with sensitive information like IP addresses. Larger cohort sizes can retain anonymity in tracking, whereas smaller cohort sizes are more definite. Cohorts in FLoC will ultimately reveal information about user behavior and browsing history to advertisers for displaying relevant ads.

Leaking user information to the web: Any website can query about cohort IDs within the FLoC service. This democratizes individual user information like browsing history to the web. Websites recording users’ PII like email IDs can reveal their cohorts, leaking the information in public.

Longitudinal privacy issues: FLoC, like any other service, will be updated over time, retaining advertising utility. But multiple FLoC samples also mean extracting more information about users’ browsing history across cohorts.

Not enough demographics for FLoC: Google proposes that FLoC form cohorts algorithmically. This means Chrome won’t know the meaning of these cohorts; it’s up to the tech vendors to find the meanings. Cohorts on sensitive topics must remain private, and the service must be centralized to control access to sensitive information.

Digital B2B marketers know they have to be well prepared in this volatile market landscape and upcoming cookieless future. FLoC service will replace third-party cookie tracking and user IDs with wider cohort IDs, but that’s probably not the only disruption on the horizon. Plan your journey towards a cookieless future with these articles:

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