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What is Google Floc and why has this project received so much criticism? | Technology

The days of cookies seem to be numbered, the tracking system used so far by the online advertising industry is encountering more and more barriers. The main browsers are turning against you, Firefox and Safari have already blocked them and Google Chrome has a final date of 2022, at which time its new proposal will be ready, FLoC or Federated Learning of Cohorts.

The internet giant wants to lead the change between the cookie era and the new system that regulates the personalized advertising market. At the end of the day, this is its main business model: “Advertising is essential to keep the web open to everyone, but the web ecosystem is at risk if privacy practices do not adjust to changing expectations,” he says in his release.

This is how they have presented FLoC, with which promise benefits for advertisers, but also greater privacy for users. This is a new dynamic with which to catalog the interests of each internet profile and thus find out which ads are of most interest to each one, a system that was born involved in quite controversy.

But doesn’t the Data Protection Law prevent us from being tracked? How is it possible, if I have the GPS disabled? The trick is called aggregated data, and it is legal. Operators track your location and trade that data, and you can’t do anything. Let’s see how it works.

What are cookies?

First we will remember to remember what cookies are and how they work. A cookie is a file that the web page you have entered sends to your computer and is stored in the browser’s memory, in this case Google Chrome. It does not matter if you are using the internet from your computer or mobile.

According to European legislation, the page must ask your permission to send you cookies and it is possible to configure which ones you want to accept and which ones not, because there are different types of cookies. Most serve for remember accesses, When a user returns to a certain page, this website remembers the user’s preferences, the articles that you consulted in that store or the changes you made on that page.

Although Chrome is not the most secure browser and, in fact, it is not a friend of blocking third-party cookies, little by little progress is being made in this field. Now, they want Chrome to be more private thanks to the Privacy Sandbox project.

These are the best valued cookies because they save us time, but then there are third-party cookies, designed for advertising, the most conflictive. With them, a whole profile is created with your browsing habits and interests. So when we are planning a vacation we spend weeks with hotel advertisements everywhere.

However, cookies are not going through their best moment, many browsers are blocking or eliminating them from their codes and some countries have placed great emphasis on giving control to users, that we can choose whether to accept them or not, especially in the European Union.

Some like the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), consider that they are in a terminal phase, “third-party cookies are dying and no one should mourn their death.” For this reason, Google proposes to replace cookies with FLoC where users are grouped by cohorts, this word comes from the Roman legions, but is now widely used for computer analysis, statistics or even medical studies.

How does Google FLoC work?

In FLoC, users will be grouped by the interests they share with other people. This way, advertisers will know which ads are of interest to that cohort, but will not get direct data on each individual.

The algorithm that regulates the advertising that we see on the internet would only know the identity of the cohort, their tastes. Each cohort of more than 1000 users it has a unique identifier, which is presented on every website that a member of that cohort visits. Y this record would be restarted leaving only the tastes and browsing habits of the last week recorded.

This is basically how Google FLoC works, which is already integrated in version 90 of Chrome and Google has started this spring to work with advertising companies to adapt to this new system. “Advertisers don’t need to track individual consumers on the web to reap the performance benefits of digital advertising,” says Google.

Despite the criticism received by much of the industry, Google is convinced of this project and all your Chrome users will be treated with FLoC as it is applied. To date, there is no other browser that uses FLoC, so it would be as simple as stopping using Google Chrome, if you do not agree with the initiative of the internet giant.

The critics

This is what the rest of the companies that have positioned themselves against FLoC recommend as DuckDuckGo, another search engine that asserts itself in its defense of privacy, which is why it has developed its own Chrome extension to block FLoC. Other browsers like Mozilla or Brave. The latter opposes FLoC by listing three aspects in which it considers FLoC to be harmful to user privacy:

FLoC informs the websites and third parties about your browsing history. It allows the web to track users over the internet. It promotes a false image of what privacy is and why privacy is important: “Google’s approach to determining whether a FLoC cohort is sensitive requires (in most cases) that Google record and collect that sensitive cohort in first place.”

Github also argues that it would be better for privacy, “if interest-based advertising could be achieved without the need to collect the browsing history of a particular person.” EFF, meanwhile, which has also been very critical, has launched a portal that allows users to know if they have been part of the initial FLoC test. Because, one of the main criticisms of Google is the using users to test run with FLoC, apparently, without the users knowing and giving their consent. EFF has called them Google’s “guinea pig.”

These are the countries where these initial tests have been carried out, some cybersecurity experts like Zack Doffman from Forbes magazine, it deduces that European users have not been used to avoid violating the current GDPR data protection law.

In general, the other companies are simply waiting to see how this project develops, it is too early to know if the idea is better than cookies or it ends up being even worse.

Some of the reviews suggest that it could be use reverse engineering to discover which users are hiding behind a cohort, which Google denies. You are also afraid that it will end cataloging people by their political affiliation or nationality and other even more sensitive data, although Google has promised to keep an eye on this.

Although the internet giant assures that the proposal seeks to prioritize the privacy of users and that the number of data collected by Floc is much lower than that currently available with cookies, the suspicion may also be due to the fact that the proposal is being made by one of the largest companies in the market with an advertising business volume of millions and whose browser is one of the most data collecting right now.

It is true that the pressure that companies suffer to offer security and privacy in technology has grown a lot in the last decade and that is why Google will surely be much more careful not to make any mistake with Floc, but as we say it is still too early to understand until where this new proposal may affect our privacy.

The war between two business models

In addition, it must be borne in mind that this debate is coinciding in 2021 with the discussion between Apple and Facebook for the new version of iOS. The iPhone operating system has been updated with a new feature that intends to make it difficult for other companies to track users through these mobile devices, which was not very funny to Mark Zuckerberg.

With these two proposals, a gap has been opened between two business models that had been at odds in the technology industry for a long time. On one side are companies that sell payment products and services and promise a little more privacy, and on the other companies that have created an entire ecosystem of free applications and services in exchange for using user data in a more personalized advertising business.

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