Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Google’s Proposal for Dropping User Tracking Is Really Just a Different Kind of Tracking

Bennett Cyphers, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Google is leading the charge to replace third-party cookies with a new suite of technologies to target ads on the Web. And some of its proposals show that it hasn’t learned the right lessons from the ongoing backlash to the surveillance business model. This post will focus on one of those proposals, FLoC, which is perhaps the most ambitious — and potentially the most harmful.


In a world with FLoC, it may be more difficult to target users directly based on age, gender, or income. But it won’t be impossible. Trackers with access to auxiliary information about users will be able to learn what FLoC groupings “mean” — what kinds of people they contain — through observation and experiment. Those who are determined to do so will still be able to discriminate. Moreover, this kind of behavior will be harder for platforms to police than it already is. Advertisers with bad intentions will have plausible deniability — after all, they aren’t directly targeting protected categories, they’re just reaching people based on behavior. And the whole system will be more opaque to users and regulators.

I got this wrong and I feel bamboozled, but I have an excuse: this stuff is incomprehensible. Google’s proposal for dropping tracking is just a slightly broader version of tracking which happens to be much harder to understand. That should mean less adverse publicity for Google while still being hostile to user privacy.