Google is Weaning Itself Off User-Tracking “Cookies”

Google is weaning itself from “cookies” user-tracking that helps the web giant to offer targeted advertising, but has raised the hackles of privacy defenders.

Last month, Google released test results showing an alternative to the long-standing monitoring practice, saying it could strengthen online privacy while still allowing important messages to be served by advertisers.

“This approach effectively hides individuals ‘in the crowd’ and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser,” explained Chetna Bindra, Google product manager, in announcing the framework called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).

“Results indicate that when it comes to generating interest-based audiences, FLoC can provide an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies.”

Later this year, with its Chrome browser, Google plans to begin checking the FLoC solution with advertisers.

“Advertising is essential to keeping the web open for everyone, but the web ecosystem is at risk if privacy practices do not keep up with changing expectations,” Bindra said.

Google has plenty of inspiration for the move. The US internet giant has been pounded by consumer privacy opponents, and is keenly aware of developments in laws protecting the data rights of users.

Growing fear of cookie monitoring has spurred support in Europe for internet rights laws such as GDPR and has the internet giant devising a way to target advertisers efficiently without learning too much about any person.

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-‘ Nightmare of anonymity’ –

Some kinds of cookies, which are text files saved anytime a user visits a website, are useful for regularly visited pages to log in and search.

Anyone who has pulled up an online login page only to have automatically inserted their name and address where necessary has cookies to thank. But some regard other kinds of cookies as nefarious.

“Third-party cookies are a privacy nightmare,” Bennet Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told AFP.

“You don’t need to know what everyone has ever done just to serve them an ad.”

He argued that context-based advertisements can be efficient; an example being someone showing ads for cookware or grocery stores looking at recipes on a cooking website.

Third-party cookies have now been banned from Safari and Firefox browsers, but they are still found on the world’s most common browser – Chrome.

According to StatCounter, Chrome accounted for 63 percent of the international browser market last year.

“It’s both a competitive and legal liability for Google to keep using third-party cookies, but they want their ad business to keep humming,” Cyphers said.

Cyphers and others are concerned about Google using a proprietary algorithm to lump internet users into categories and issue them “cohort” badges of sorts that would be used without knowing exactly who they are to target advertisement messages.

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Cyphers said, “There is a chance that it just makes a lot of privacy problems worse,” implying that the new system might build “cohort” badges for persons who could be abused with no oversight.

“There is a machine learning black box that is going to take in every bit of everything you have even done in your browser and spit out a label that says you are this kind of person,”There is a machine learning black box that will take in every bit of everything you’ve even done in your browser and spit out a label that says you’re this kind of individual.

“Advertisers are going to decode what those labels mean.”

A Marketers for an Open Web business coalition is campaigning against Google’s cohort
move, questioning its effectiveness and arguing it will force more advertisers into its “walled garden.”

“Google’s proposals are bad for independent media owners, bad for independent advertising technology and bad for marketers,” said James Rosewell, director of the alliance, in a statement.

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