DuckDuckGo’s Chrome extension blocks Google’s controversial new FLoC tracking technique
DuckDuckGo, the privacy loving search engine, has taken aim directly at Google's new FLoC technology with a Chrome extension that promises to protect your privacy by deactivated FLoC IDs.
Or, to put it another way, DuckDuckGo just told Google to FLoC off.
What is FLoC and why does it matter?
You're probably used to the concept that Google, and other advertisers, track what you look at online and then send you advertising based on your browsing history. The core technology that allows this third party cookies, tiny snippets of information that websites (and the systems they link to) store on your computer and use to track you around the web.
Third party cookies are particularly nasty because they are not set by the website you are visiting but by websites or services they are connected to. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube - all of these services use third party cookies to track which websites you've been on, even when you are not on theirs.
Will you accept cookies?
Websites and platforms used to do this with impunity until changes in privacy laws forced them to come clean and actually ask you if you wanted your activity to be tracked. It's why most website now feature a pop-over "cookie warning" that's more complex than the Lament Configuration and probably just as bad for you if you open it up...
Yes, if you ever wondered just how many people are tracking you online, open up one of those windows and have a look at how many different services some websites are using...
Browser makers, privacy advocates, and basically anyone who hasn't built a multi-billion dollar business on the back of tracking internet users hates this stuff and, under significant pressure from all sides, Google are finally accepting that the tide has turned and will be blocking third party cookies in Chrome from default in the very near future.
So, that's the end of it of targeted advertising, right?
Err... no. Just because third party tracking cookies are gone, doesn't mean that Google has totally given up on the idea of stalking users all around the internet and neither have any of the other advertising companies who rely on hoovering up your data to power their advertising platforms.
Google still need a way to make sure that they are showing the right kind of advert to the right kind of people without tracking them individually. Their solution is called Federated Learning of Cohorts... and it looks a hell of a lot like tracking people individually... except it's worse.
With FLoC, by simply browsing the web, you are automatically placed into a group based on your browsing history ("cohort"). Websites you visit will immediately be able to access this group FLoC ID and use it to target ads or content at you. It's like walking into a store where they already know all about you! In addition, while FLoC is purported to be more private because it is a group, combined with your IP address (which also gets automatically sent to websites) you can continue to be tracked easily as an individual.
Google itself maintains detailed profiles of users, built up over time from what they've learned about users (including through passive trackers lurking on most websites), but with FLoC they're now exposing your derived interests and demographics from this profile to the websites you visit via FLoC IDs. Although the cohorts you belong to over time are non-descriptive and represented by an anonymous-looking number, it won't be long before people or organizations work out what FLoC IDs really mean, e.g. what interests and demographic information they are likely correlated with.
The same privacy advocates that hate tracking cookies hate FLoC even more and there's a big question mark over whether or not the technology will ever really make it into mainstream use because of this. Browser makers who aren't Google aren't flocking to use the technology; Firefox, Edge, Safari, and others have all already voiced their intent not to support FLoC in their browsers and DuckDuckGo have created a brand new Chrome Extension that will block FLoC along with other tracking technologies.
Should I install a FLoC Blocker in Chrome?
My personal opinion is - yes, absolutely. Your experience of the web is in no way enriched by enabling third parties to track you in detail and there are significant dangers inherent in the FLoC technology that have not yet been fully understood.
Consider, for a moment, the potential implications of a financial website using FLoC to determine which products to offer, or what premiums to charge. Consider a private health insurance company that judges a part of your premium based on which websites you visit. Your internet browsing history could impact your financial future, your health, and many other aspects of your life.
As a writer who regularly needs to look up some... obscure things, I really don't like the idea of my internet browsing history following me around and making its presence felt in the more "real world" aspects of my life.
If you're looking for a good privacy plugin for Chrome, I recommend Privacy Badger from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
I don't care about that - Will my targeted advertising still work?
Short answer - yes. There's already plenty of evidence that you don't need detailed, individualised tracking to make effective advertising placement. In fact, the resurgence in the use of contextual advertising shows that you don't need to know the size of someone's shoes and what they had for lunch last Tuesday to effectively target an advert.
Google also aren't the only game in town and many other vendors are working on their own alternative approaches to delivering the right advert to the right person at the right time. In the short term however, a significant chunk of your visitors are likely to come to your site without sharing their FLoC cohort ID.
Will re-marketing still work?
Currently it's possible to ensure that a visitor will see your website, or your products, again and again around the web after they've visited your website because you can track them individually. Sure, it's super creepy, invasive, and also not completely proven to work, but advertising companies and marketing execs love it... so what happens now?
Well, the days of knowing your specific visitor will see your specific advert will soon be behind us. Instead, you will be able to target your adverts at a chosen cohort. However, what you won't know is what this cohort represents. For example, if you're running an IT business there are a lot of reasons someone might land on your website - they might be a potential customer, they might be a competitor, they might be a recruitment agency looking for a new potential client...
So, whilst Google claim that FLoC is up to 95% as effective at targeting advertising as individualised tracking, this is raising a lot of eyebrows in the marketing industry because you could very easily target the wrong cohort.
Overall, the kind in invasive, follow you around the internet, standing outside your house with a ghetto blaster in the rain type of advertising may soon be a thing of the past. It's time to raise your game and start working on your advertising campaigns in a world without tracking.