Early this month, Google quietly began trials of ‘Privacy Sandbox’: Its planned replacement adtech for tracking cookies, as it works toward phasing out support for third-party cookies in the Chrome browser — testing a system to reconfigure the dominant web architecture by replacing individual ad targeting with ads that target groups of users (aka Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoCs), and which — it loudly contended — will still generate a fat upside for advertisers.
There are several gigantic questions about this plan. Not least whether targeting groups of people who are non-transparently stuck into algorithmically computed interest-based buckets based on their browsing history will reduce the harms that have come to be widely associated with behavioral advertising.
Suppose your concern is online ads that discriminate against protected groups or seek to exploit vulnerable people (e.g., those with a gambling addiction). In that case, FLoCs may very well just serve up more of the abusive same. The EFF has, for example, called FLoCs a “terrible idea”, warning the system may amplify problems like discrimination and predatory targeting.
Advertisers also query whether FLoCs will really generate like-for-like revenue, as Google claims. Competition concerns are also closely dogging Google’s Privacy Sandbox, which is under investigation by UK antitrust regulators — and has drawn scrutiny from the US Department of Justice, too, as Reuters reported recently.
Adtech players complain the shift will merely increase Google’s gatekeeper power over them by blocking their access to web users’ data even as Google can continue to track its own users — leveraging that first-party data alongside a new moat they claim will keep them in the dark about what individuals are doing online. (Though whether it will actually do that is not at all clear.)
Antitrust is, of course, a convenient argument for the adtech industry to use to strategically counter the prospect of privacy protections for individuals. But competition regulators on both sides of the pond are concerned enough over the power dynamics of Google ending support for tracking cookies that they’re taking a closer look.
And then there’s the question of privacy itself — which obviously merits close scrutiny too. Google’s sales pitch for the ‘Privacy Sandbox’ is evident in its choice of the brand name — which suggests it’s keen to push the perception of a technology that protects privacy.
After years of data breach and data misuse scandals, this is Google’s response to the rising store of value being placed on protecting personal data.
A terrible reputation now dogs the tracking industry (or the “data industrial complex”, as Apple likes to denounce it) — as a result of high profile scandals like Kremlin-fuelled voter manipulation in the US but also just the demonstrable dislike web users have of being ad-stalking around the Internet. (Very evident in the ever-increasing use of tracker- and ad-blockers; and in the response of other web browsers which have adopted several anti-tracking measures years ahead of Google-owned Chrome).