Birds of a feather FLoC together? What does FloC mean for advertisers?
Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts seems to be the rather unlikely phrase on everyone’s lips lately and it has sparked a debate over how advertisers can target us online. But what does it really mean and what do we need to do next? Jimmy Ward, Information Security Manager at PromoVeritas explores the world of data’s latest development.
What is FLoC?
Anyone with an eye on tech advertising right now will notice that privacy sells, and everybody wants in. We know that third-party cookies are being phased out, what we don’t know is exactly what will replace them. For those of you who haven’t already heard, Google is currently trialling their replacement: FLoC (or Federated Learning of Cohorts.)
We like many other businesses rely on advertising to continue to provide our services to customers. As a compliance-focused marketing company, we are forever trying to find the right balance between appropriate advertising and the privacy rights of the individual.
We are very clear about responsibilities here – the user must be informed upfront about use of these cookies, be able to switch them off, and be set to off as default.
FLoC is Google’s replacement for third-party cookies. It gathers much more details about the user’s browsing habits, but rather than keeping it in a way traceable to the individual, it is added to a group (or cohort) of the browsing habits of many people. Google have advised that this is to protect the privacy of the end user, whilst reportedly maintaining 95% of the conversions that third-party cookie use would provide[i].
What are the press saying?
You don’t have to go far to look for stark (sorry) warnings that FLoC could be abused. None of Google’s competitors in the browsing sphere have agreed to use FLoC, with some privacy-focused rivals making their stance clear[ii][iii][iv]. Privacy website EFF have voiced concerns[v] over GDPR compliance, especially regarding discrimination on the grounds of protected characteristics. WordPress have been so bold as to state the FLoC will “be treated as a security problem” [vi].
Google however have been keen to highlight the fact that this could be better for the privacy of consumers if done right, which would mean not being able to identify the members of a cohort.
How could this benefit your business?
Just like third-party cookies, FLoC can provide insights into user behaviour. With much more data being gathered, there is a huge potential for businesses to provide more relevant targeted advertising than before. With more data being gathered, this means more opportunities…
What could possibly go wrong?
…but it also means more risks. Eagle-eyed critics have noted that Google have already started trialling on an estimated 2 million unsuspecting Chrome users[vii][viii]. This is an unusual move for something billed as “privacy-first future for web advertising”, especially given Google’s previous bumps finding its way in the world of privacy[ix]. The worry here is that FLoC collects far more data than third-party cookies do and keep that data in a cohort. During this trial period, third-party cookies are also in use, and so both sets of data are potentially available. This means that rather than just the browsing habits of that individual user, their age, gender, sexual orientation, or anything could be attributed to them without them having consented to the information being gathered.
What does the future look like for advertisers?
Advertisers will certainly want to monitor developments with FLoC identify the opportunities that it can bring, and without violating the privacy of their customers.