Today we’re launching Am I FLoCed, a new site that will tell you whether your Chrome browser has been turned into a guinea pig for Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC, Google’s latest targeted advertising experiment. If you are a subject, we will tell you how your browser is describing you to every website you visit. Am I FLoCed is one of an effort to bring to light the invasive practices of the adtech industry—Google included—with the hope we can create a better internet for all, where our privacy rights are respected regardless of how profitable they may be to tech companies.
FLoC is a terrible idea that should not be implemented. Google’s experimentation with FLoC is also deeply flawed. We hope that this site raises awareness about where the future of Chrome seems to be heading, and why it shouldn't.
FLoC takes most of your browsing history in Chrome, and analyzes it to assign you to a category or “cohort.” This identification is then sent to any website you visit that requests it, in essence telling them what kind of person Google thinks you are. For the time being, this ID changes every week, hence leaking new information about you as your browsing habits change. You can read a more detailed explanation here.
Because this ID changes, you will want to visit https://amifloced.org often to see those changes.
Why is this happening?
Users have been demanding more and more respect from big business for their online privacy, realizing that the false claim “privacy is dead” was nothing but a marketing campaign. The biggest players that stand to profit from privacy invasion are those from the behavioural targeting industry.
Some companies and organizations have listened to users’ requests and improved some of their practices, giving more security and privacy assurances to their users. But most have not. This entire industry sells its intricate knowledge about people in order to target them for advertisement, most notably Google and Facebook, but also many other data brokers with names you’ve probably never heard before.
The most common way these companies identify you is by using “cookies” to track every movement you make on the internet. This relies on a tracking company convincing as many sites as possible to install their tracking cookie. But with tracking protections being deployed via browser extensions like Privacy Badger, or in browsers like Firefox and Safari, this has become more difficult. Moreover, stronger privacy laws are coming. Thus, many in the adtech industry have realized that the end is near for third-party tracking cookies.
While some cling to the old ways, others are trying to find new ways to keep tracking users, monetizing their personal information, without third-party cookies. These companies will use the word “privacy” in their marketing, and try to convince users, policy makers, and regulators that their solutions are better for users and the market. Or they will claim the other solutions are worse, creating a false impression that users have to choose between “bad” and ”worse.”
But our digital future should not be one where an industry keeps profiting from privacy violations, but one where our rights are respected.
The Google Proposal
Google announced the launch of its FLoC test with a recent blogpost. It contains lots of mental gymnastics to twist this terrible idea into the semblance of a privacy-friendly endeavour.
Perhaps most disturbing is the notion that FLoC’s cohorts are not based on who you are as an individual. The reality is FLoC uses your detailed and unique browsing history to assign you to a cohort. The number of people in a cohort is tailored to still be useful to advertisers, and according to some of Google’s own research it is 95% effective, meaning cohorts are a marginal improvement over cookies on privacy.
FLoC might not share your detailed browsing history. But we reject the notion of “because it’s in your device it’s private.” If data is used to infer something about you, about who you are, and how you can be targeted, and then shared with other sites and advertisers, then it’s not private at all.
And let's not forget that Google Sync already shares your detailed Chrome browsing history with Google when enabled by default.
The sole intent of FLoC is to keep the status quo of surveillance capitalism, with a vague appearance of user choice. It cements even more the dependability on “Google’s benevolence” and access to the internet. A misguided belief that Google is our friendly corporate overlord, that they know better, and that we should sign out our rights in exchange for crumbs for the internet to survive.
Google has also made unsubstantiated statements like “FLoC allows you to remain anonymous as you browse across websites and also improves privacy by allowing publishers to present relevant ads to large groups (called cohorts),” but as far as we can tell, FLoC does not make you anonymous in any way. Only a few browsers, like Tor, can accurately make such difficult claims. Now with FLoC, your browser is still telling sites something about your behavior. Google cannot equate grouping users into advertising cohorts with “anonymity.”
This experiment is irresponsible and antagonistic to users. FLoC, with marginal improvements on privacy, is riddled with issues, and yet is planned to be rolled out to millions of users around the world with no proper notification, opt-in consent, or meaningful individual opt-out at launch.
This is not just one more Chrome experiment. This is a fundamental change to the browser and how people are exploited for their data. After all the pushback, concerns, and issues, the fact that Google has chosen to ignore the warnings is telling of where the company stands with regard to our privacy.