Google stunned the world a few weeks ago when it announced that it was turning off support for third-party cookie support in its Chrome browser, a move that will change how advertising companies — including Google themselves, track users around the internet. The company’s ‘alternative’ to third-party cookies based on ‘Federated learning’ is now going live for some users, according to reports. It runs locally and categorises your browsing behaviour that groups together, like-minded users, into a cohort. It will enable users to hide within crowds of people with similar interests and search histories. The cohort enables advertisers to target people based on their interests while maintaining privacy for individual users.
Dubbed Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) for Chrome, is based on machine learning technology developed by Google to allow the browser to anonymously study users browsing and then put them in groups or “cohorts”. Because users are in these groups, advertising will be based on the cohorts and not on individual user’s data.
Chrome’s alternative to third-party cookie tracking will allow users to be targeted, but anonymously, using these groups of users based on their age, browsing habits, location, interests, and so on. The company has now started testing the FLoC cookie for some Chrome users, allowing them to test the new system in an origin trial, according to The Verge. Chrome origin trials allow developers to safely experiment with web platform features.
Through a post on its Web developers blog, Google announced that soon it will stop websites from registering third-party cookies. The software giant is currently testing FLoC in India, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the US. Google plans to roll out the trial version to other regions eventually. Google is not testing FLoC in the EU due to its General Data Protection Regulations (it is still unclear whether FLoC IDs should be considered as personal data under the rules). Marshall Vale, Product Manager for Privacy Sandbox, said in a tweet that it is only rolling out the test version of FLoC in select markets to limit the size of the initial testing and the team undertaking the testing of FLoC is “100 percent committed to the Privacy Sandbox in Europe.”
For a real-life example, this means that users who visit sites about the Android devices will be grouped in a cohort with other users who have similar browsing habits. A website that wants to show users ads related to Android devices will be able to target the cohort of users instead of a single user, which Google claims will improve user privacy.
Since the “federated learning” happens on the user’s device, artificial intelligence-based learning involves sharing of lesser user data than with third-party cookies. If this method of tracking users is widely adopted by advertising companies and services, it will also protect users from tracking methods that are worse than third-party cookies — such as browser fingerprinting.