Google Slays The ‘Cookie’ Monster

Google is all set to rewire its online strategies as it has decided to ditch third-party cookies on Google Chrome. These cookies, used for targeted advertisements, are considered to be a threat to user’s privacy. Google accounted for more than 50% of last year’s global digital ad spending of $292 billion, and its new decision aims to disrupt digital ad businesses, which rely on tracking individuals. Advertising accounted for more than 80% of the Alphabet’s revenue in 2020.

If digital advertising doesn’t evolve to address privacy concerns, Google warns that we might risk the future of the free and open web. 

Google will not use third-party cookies and also not build alternative tracking technologies being developed by other entities. Instead, the company will use a “privacy sandbox”, a collection of services that target ads without collecting information about individuals from multiple websites.

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“FLoC allows businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests.” 

Federated learning of Cohorts or FLoC is a Privacy Sandbox technology first proposed last year based on the idea that groups of people with common interests could replace individual identifiers. Google said their tests with alternatives like FLoC have been promising and have great implications in areas like measurement, fraud protection and anti-fingerprinting, “The Privacy Sandbox will power our web products in a post-third-party cookie world,” said the company in a blog post.

According to Google, FLoC enables businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads by clustering large groups of people with similar interests. This effectively hides individuals “in the crowd” and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser. 

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The FLoC cohort is a short name shared by a large number of users, derived by the browser from its user’s browsing history. The browser updates the cohort over time, and the value is made available to websites via a new JavaScript API:

cohort = await document.interestCohort();

url = new URL(“https://ads.example/getCreative”);

url.searchParams.append(“cohort”, cohort);

creative = await fetch(url);

How FLoC Works

  • Browser uses machine learning algorithms to develop a cohort based on the sites users visit. 
  • The algorithms are based on the URLs of the visited sites, content and other factors. 
  • Features to the algorithm, such as the web history, are kept local on the browser. 
  • The browser only exposes the generated cohort and ensures that cohorts are well distributed.
  • The number of cohorts is small, so that they cannot carry detailed information — short cohort names (“43A7”) can help make that clear.
  • The browser might also use differential privacy. 

Read more about FloC here.

Within the Privacy Sandbox, Chrome has proposed many technologies that would allow businesses to measure campaign performance without third-party cookies. These proposals, says Google, will protect users’ privacy while supporting key advertiser requirements, such as event-level and aggregate level reporting, that enable bidding models to recognise patterns in the data and accurate measurement over groups of users.

According to Google, the Privacy Sandbox represents the future of how ads and measurement products will work on the web. “We encourage others to join us in defining this new approach which will create better experiences for consumers while providing more durable solutions for the ads industry,” said Chetna Bindra, Group Product Manager, User Trust and Privacy at Google.

Big Tech & Privacy

Google’s decision to launch new technologies to protect user privacy comes weeks after Apple’s launch of privacy labels, a new iOS update that will inform users about who is tracking them. However, this decision was not welcomed by all. Smaller digital-ad companies which go through the traditional route of tracking users have accused Google and Apple of using privacy as a pretext for changes to hurt their competitors.

Even Facebook argued that individualised ad targeting helps small businesses that otherwise would struggle to find customers in response to Apple’s aggressive privacy stance.

Google’s Director of Product Management for Ads and Privacy, David Temkin, assured that Google will get rid of cookie-based tracking and stay away from other technologies that track individuals. The company doesn’t believe that these solutions will be able to address the rising consumer expectations for privacy and the ever evolving regulatory restrictions.” Our web products will be powered by privacy-preserving APIs which prevent individual tracking while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers,” said Temkin.

By moving away from third-party cookie tracking, Google becomes self-reliant by using data directly from its services; Google calls this “first-party” data. Experts see Google’s initiatives to be more of a “compromise” to relieve itself of some regulatory pressure that it has been subjected to recently. The search giant wants to prove that it is serious about user’s privacy and is ready to take measured risks. However, the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK has already launched a probe into Google’s cookie ditching plan!

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by Vijayalakshmi Anandan

The Deep Learning Curve is a technology-based podcast hosted by Vijayalakshmi Anandan - Video Presenter and Podcaster at Analytics India Magazine. This podcast is the narrator's journey of curiosity and discovery in the world of technology.

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