Would you trust a doctor when she says you have to take certain pills for your illness, if you knew that those pills will not help you in any way and is only being prescribed because it is manufactured by the same company that runs the hospital? You would probably get a second opinion because there’s a conflict of interest.
Would you trust a mechanic when he says that you need to buy an expensive part in order to fix your bike/car/spaceship, if you knew that the part would not solve your problem and is being recommended only because the company that owns the garage also manufactures the part? You probably would go to a different mechanic because there is a conflict of interest there.
Would you trust an advertising company, if it made web browsers and one fine day, asked you to accept the use of a new technology in the browser, in the name of making your browsing experience better, if you knew that the new technology actually helps the company show your more personalised advertisements? Hell, no! That’s clearly a conflict of interest.
What if I say that the advertising company is Google and the browser is Google Chrome? Really, Google? An advertising company? I must be out of my mind.
Facebook and Google are advertising companies that also do tech. Both these companies make insane profits from advertising. If you find that hard to believe, just search (Google?) for Google’s advertising revenue for any of the last few years. Some sources say up to 80% of Google’s total revenue came from online advertising. Don’t quote me on these numbers, just look them up yourself. The point here is, Google (and Facebook) makes money from advertising and has a lot to lose if the current model of advertising changes. Let’s dive in.
Third party cookies
My previous blog post on third party cookies is a dumbed down explanation of how third party cookies work. In short, cookies (little bits of information stored by a website) from sites that you have not even visited are sneakily stored on your computer to track your browsing habits and serve you advertisements based on that.
Luckily there’s been a refreshing increase in online privacy awareness. GDPR has even made online privacy a legal right in Europe. Browsers like Firefox and Safari are now disabling third party cookies by default. Chrome has to follow suit or risk being left out and lose its majority market share as people become more aware. Enter FLoC, or Federated Learning of Cohorts. It’s Google way to replace tracking via third party cookies and still keep its lucrative advertising unit profitable.
What the FLoC?
FLoC is just another way of tracking your browsing habits, but instead of using third party cookies, the browser itself will do it. So, if this goes through (and it will), Chrome will keep track of your browsing activity and anonymously share that information with Google’s advertising partners. In simple terms, it will give your browser a unique identity and based on your browsing habits, group you with other users with similar interests and browsing habits so that you can receive relevant advertisements on websites. How is this different from third party cookies? It isn’t, but Google’s claim is that it is anonymous and safe.
At first glance, this “anonymous” data may not feel like much, but advertisers can easily put things together and continue profiling like nothing has changed.
The major concern here is not what is, but what will be. There is nothing that prevents Google from misusing this information without your consent, like there was nothing that prevented them from incorporating such a technology in the browser without your consent in the first place. Unlike cookies, you cannot disable FLoC once Google rolls it out into Chrome. Maybe a backlash now might make them add an option to opt out of it in the future. That might not happen for a while and even if it does, it still does not solve the problem. Why does your browser have to track you in the first place?
Google may or may not use all this data for evil, but I don’t want to trust my data with a company that relies on the use of that data for profit. There’s a conflict of interest here.
What is the option then? Stop using Chrome. I appreciate Chrome for one reason. It displaced Internet Explorer (now called Microsoft Edge) as the most popular browser in the world. As a web developer who started making websites in the late 90s, there was no escaping Internet Exploder. I attribute a major portion of my hair loss to developing for IE and trying to get things to work. Chrome came and swept the market like a Tsunami. Technically, Chrome was a much better browser than IE and it did good. It did what Firefox could not do even though it was very good and around way before Chrome.
Depending on where you look, as of this writing, Chrome has between 65% to 77% of the browser market share. That makes it the most popular browser by a long margin. It’s unfortunate that Google has chosen to leverage this market share to ensure that their primary source of revenue stays profitable. I can’t blame Google. It’s business after all. For the average user though, privacy is a bigger cost to pay.
To be honest, I never really liked Chrome and this does not affect me one bit. I only use Chrome to test websites that I am developing and have never used it to actually browse. I’ve been a Firefox user from the very beginning, from when there was a browser called Mozilla, but more on Firefox in another post. On the iPhone and iPad Safari works well for me (although Apple’s stance on making every browser on iOS use Safari at the back is annoying).
If Chrome goes fully open source or is spun off as a separate entity, with no connections to Google, I might consider using it, but even then, there are better options.
Switch to Firefox, Safari or a privacy focussed browser like Brave, Epic, or Tor. Heck, switch to Microsoft Edge if you want to, it’s not a bad browser these days. It’s time to take the web back from the plague of advertising that has crippled it for the last decade or so. The first step is to change your browser.
In my next post in this series, I’ll talk about how I configure and use Firefox for privacy and maybe give a few other options.
Resources and further reading
- Check if your Chrome has FLoC already enabled
- Other browsers - Firefox, Brave, Epic
- Google’s advertising revenue
- Electronic Frontier Foundation’s post on FLoC
- Jeremy Keith explains it better than anyone else