Two big names in the internet world have spoken out against Google’s FLoC system. Both Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox browser, and Automattic, the company behind the popular WordPress CMS, have said they will not participate in Google’s alternative to tracking cookies.
The withdrawal of WordPress in particular is a major blow to Google’s proposal. Over 60 percent of all websites run on this CMS. In a blog post, Automattic calls FLoC a security concern and refers to an article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, entitled “Google’s FLoC is a terrible idea“. That article speaks out against FLoC’s ability to divide people into groups based on their browsing behaviour in order to show them targeted ads. This could lead to discrimination and abuse of consumers.
Battle against discrimination
Automattic says the WordPress community can help combat racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and discrimination against people with mental illness with four new lines of code in WordPress. These four lines, which simply deactivate the FLoC system, are being added to WordPress at an accelerated pace. This is because WordPress 5.8 is scheduled for July 2021, but FLoC is likely to be rolled out this month. Users who, for whatever reason, still want to use FLoC on their website can overwrite the code. Automattic is also working on a toggle to easily turn the feature on and off.
Firefox joins Brave and Vivaldi
After the developers of the Brave and Vivaldi browsers both indicated last week that they would not support Google’s advertising system, Digiday decided to ask Mozilla what that organisation’s position is on FLoC. The organisation behind the Firefox browser responded that it is considering many of the privacy-preserving ad proposals, including Google’s, but currently has no plans to implement them.
“We don’t buy into the assumption that the industry needs billions of data points about people, that are collected and shared without their understanding, to serve relevant advertising,,” the Mozilla spokesperson went on to say. The position is not surprising, as Firefox was one of the first browsers to block tracking cookies by default.
Considerable blow for FLoC
With these developments, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Google to build momentum with its project to offer personalised ads in a supposedly privacy-friendly way. Firefox only controls four percent of the browser market and Brave’s and Vivaldi’s market share is negligible, but Automattic’s move to block FLoC by default on a huge proportion of all websites is likely to have a big impact.
On the other hand, Google, with its Chrome browser, still controls about 60 percent of the browser market and also manages some of the most visited websites on the internet. Even without the support of Firefox and Automattic, it is still feasible for FLoC to capture a large market share. This assumes that not even more major parties on the internet turn against Google’s system.
Federated Learning of Cohorts
Federated Learning of Cohorts is a system Google devised to replace the use of tracking cookies to serve personalised ads. Instead of an ad provider getting a comprehensive overview of your browsing history based on collected cookies, your browser creates its own code to display a summary of your user profile. Ad providers can retrieve this code to display personalised ads. This will allow targeted advertising, but will not give ad providers a full picture of the user’s browsing behaviour. Moreover, thousands of people are covered by the same profile, so the information cannot be linked back to a specific user.