Google weaned itself from user-tracking “cookies” that allow the web giant to serve up personalized ads, but has also sparked a breach on the part of privacy advocates.
Last month, Google revealed test results that show an alternative to the long practice of tracking, claiming it can improve online privacy while still enabling advertisers to send relevant messages.
“This approach effectively hides individuals in the crowd and uses on-device processing to keep a person’s web history private on the browser,” Google Product Manager Chetna Bendra explained in unveiling the system called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).
“The results indicate that when it comes to building interest-based audiences, FLoC can provide an effective alternative signal to third-party cookies.”
Google plans to start testing FLoC’s approach with advertisers later this year using its Chrome browser.
“Advertising is essential to keep the web open to everyone, but the web’s ecosystem is at risk if privacy practices do not keep pace with changing expectations,” Bendra added.
Google has a lot of incentives to change. The US internet giant has come under fire for user privacy, and is fully aware of the trends in legislation protecting people’s data rights.
The growing fear of tracking cookies has bolstered internet rights legislation such as the General Data Protection Act in Europe and has made the internet giant devise a way to effectively target ads without knowing much about anyone.
– ‘Privacy nightmare’ –
Some types of cookies – which are text files that are stored when a user visits a website – are suitable for logins and browsing on frequently visited sites.
Anyone who pulls an online registration page only to automatically enter their name and address as appropriate has thank you cookies. But other types of cookies are viewed by some as outrageous.
“Third-party cookies are a privacy nightmare,” Bennett Sievers, a technical expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told AFP.
“You don’t need to know what everyone else did just to place an ad for them.”
It believed that context-based advertising could be effective. For example, being someone who searches for recipes on a cooking website showing ads for cooking utensils or grocery stores.
Safari and Firefox have already eliminated third-party cookies, but they are still used by the most popular browser in the world – Chrome.
Chrome accounted for 63 percent of the global browser market last year, according to StatCounter.
“It is a competitive and legal responsibility for Google to continue to use third-party cookies, but they want their advertising activity to continue to thrive,” said Sayvers.
Cypher and others have concerns that Google uses a secret formula to group Internet users into groups and give them “group” badges of the kind that will be used to target marketing messages without knowing exactly who they are.
“There is a possibility that this will exacerbate a lot of privacy issues,” Sayvers said, indicating that the new system could create “group” badges from people who might be targeted with little transparency.
“There is a black box for machine learning that will take in every bit of everything you’ve done, even in your browser, and spit out a poster saying you are that kind of person,” Sayvers said.
“Advertisers will decipher what these ratings mean.”
And he expected advertisers to ultimately infer tags that include specific ages, genders, or ethnicities, and which people are susceptible to extremist political views.
Marketers for the Open Web Business Alliance are campaigning against Google’s collective move, questioning its effectiveness and arguing that 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,” Alliance Director James Roswell said in a statement.
gc / rl