Privacy-focused browsers say no to Google's FLoC

DuckDuckGo, Brave and other browser companies oppose Google's FLoC web technology.
Last Updated : 14 April 2021, 12:20 IST

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In late March, Google announced to introduce a new web technology- Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), that will eventually replace the practice of browsers and third-party websites storing user data (cookies). Search engine giant believes FLoC will be less intrusive compared to the current practice in terms of user privacy. It also wants other browsers and website hosting companies to embrace new web technology.

However, privacy-focused companies such as Brave, DuckDuckGo, Vivaldi, and others rejected Google's call to implement FloC in their respective browsers.

What is FLoC?
Before deep-diving into FLoC and its features, let us explain to you what 'Cookies' does.

When a user visits a website that uses cookies, a cookie file is created and saved in the device (a phone, or tablet, or computer). It is basically a text containing the website's name, and also a unique ID that represents a user such as a device ID, username, password, browsing data, and more.

And, if the user returns to a website again, the website knows he/she already been there before and let the user resume where they left before.

Brower apps use cookies to understand the preferences (most visited websites) of users and to deliver better search results.

Also, if the website is an e-commerce site, it will know that this particular user had previously visited and purchased these items. Using machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm, they would have created a more personal profile with data such as email ID, mobile number, age, purchase history, and more) linked to the user. With such information, it will show targeted ads of products that are likely to appeal to that person and lead to a purchase.

This creation of a personally identifiable profile is exactly why user privacy advocates oppose cookies on browsers and websites.

Now, Google says FLoC is the best alternative to cookies and wants others to use this web technology.

The company claims that FLoC will allow users to remain anonymous as they browse across websites and also improves privacy by allowing publishers to present relevant ads to large groups (called cohorts).

Instead of tracking individually, the browsing history will be grouped with others with similar interests. Also, every time there is a change in browsing behaviour, the user is teamed up with other groups. This will help in curbing companies to create individual profiles.

It also noted that FLoC will not share browsing history with anyone or even Google. It adds that the company's browser Chrome will go a step ahead to analyse if the user's browsing history needs to be tracked or not in certain sensitive scenarios.

For instance, if the user goes to web pages with sensitive topics, such as medical websites or websites with political or religious content, at a high rate, Chrome will neither create individual profiles nor put them in groups (cohorts).

However, browsing app developers such as DuckDuck Go and Brave are ready to buy Google's new FLoC technology.

They just want Google to just stop tracking the user behaviour. Creating groups to protect individual user is just hogwash, as tracking of users still continues in the new FLoC system.

Here's what Brave browser said on Google's FLoC

FLoC promotes a false notion of what privacy is, and why privacy is important.

Google is aware of some of these concerns but gives them shallow treatment in their proposal. For example, Google notes that some categories (sexual orientation, medical issues, political party, etc.) will be exempt from FLoC, and that they are looking into other ways of preventing “sensitive” categories from being used in FLoC. Google’s approach here is fundamentally wrong.

First, Google’s approach to determining whether a FLoC cohort is sensitive requires (in most cases) Google to record and collect that sensitive cohort in the first place! A system that determines whether a cohort is “sensitive” by recording how many people are in that sensitive cohort doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Here's what DuckDuckGo said on Google removing cookies on Chrome

Blocking third-party cookies and related mechanisms do partially restrict cross-site trackers (which is a good thing for sure), but the reality is that as long as a tracker is still being loaded in your browser, it can definitely still track you — a bit less easily, but tracking is still tracking, and the most prevalent cross-site trackers (those from Google and Facebook) are certainly still tracking you. In this context, browser privacy tech that just restricts trackers after they have loaded is like using an umbrella in a hurricane: You’re still gonna get wet!

DuckDuckGo also pointed that removing all trackers will actually improve the speed of website loading on screen by 46 per cent and also decrease internet data usage up to 34 per cent.

"With FLoC, by simply browsing the web, you are automatically placed into a group based on your browsing history (“cohort”). Websites you visit will immediately be able to access this group FLoC ID and use it to target ads or content at you. It's like walking into a store where they already know all about you! In addition, while FLoC is purported to be more private because it is a group, combined with your IP address (which also gets automatically sent to websites) you can continue to be tracked easily as an individual," DuckDuckGo noted.

As of now, FLoC is being tested in a small percentage of users in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the US.

Google plans to expand the testing in wider regions in the coming weeks.

Google has its task cut out in convincing third-party browser app companies and websites to implement FLoC in their systems.

Also, it remains to be seen how the users respond to Google's plan to formally release FLoC on Chrome for the public in near future.

Get the latest news on new launches, gadget reviews, apps, cybersecurity, and more on personal technology only on DH Tech.

Published 14 April 2021, 12:19 IST

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