Privacy and the end of browser cookies – what you need to know

By Lori Goldberg, CEO of Silverlight Digital

The release of Apple’s iOS 14 signaled a new age in online privacy, as the world’s leading mobile operating systems took a hard stand on protecting users privacy. iOS 14 scaled back how advertisers could use cookies to track users online and allowing them to ‘opt out” of tracking and thus not be targeting by advertisers. Apps in Apple’s app store will require uses to give permission to be tracked and provide greater detail on the data each app is collecting, so platforms such as Facebook will have reduced access profiling users for the benefit of targeting ads and so on.

It’s hard to imagine how ad tracking can change without a 3rd-party cookie being installed in a user’s browser, although this change did not happen overnight. The use of private and cloaked browsers has been a thorn to advertiser’s analytics for many years.

The race is on to replace the 3rd-party cookie with a suitable and private method of tracking. Google’s been working on a “privacy-first” web and plans to eliminate cookies since 2019, and earlier this year was sandboxing an alternative called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC).

“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,” according to Chetna Bindra

Group Product Manager, User Trust and Privacy in their online advisory, Building a privacy-first future for web advertising.

Google’s FLoC uses its Chrome browser to create groups or cohorts of anonymous users – thousands per cohort – who have similar search history, interests, demographics and behaviors. Advertising could be targeted to the cohort, not the specific user, who remains anonymous. Users can be moved in and out of cohorts based on behavior. The browser will update the cohort over time as the user traverses the web, using machine learning algorithms. Advertisers may even be able to create their own “persona” defined cohorts in the future based on characteristics od prior website traffic for remarketing purposes.

Google feels FLoC can provide “an effective replacement signal for third-party cookies.” They claim tests of FLoC “to reach in-market and affinity Google Audiences show that advertisers can expect to see at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.” All sites with publicly routable IP addresses that the user visits when not in incognito mode will be included in the POC cohort calculation.

Google’s FLoC “proof of concept” was added to Chrome recently as a beta to millions of users, reported here by Zak Doffman at Forbes, who calls it “creepy” and feels they will continue to harvest user data, just with less access to identity. Privacy advocates are accusing Google of adding FLoC to Chrome without notification to users.

Privacy advocates at search engine DuckDuckGo have created a new browser extension for Chrome that block’s FLoC, claiming Chrome users will be “surprised to know” that they were auto-enrolled in Google’s cookie-alternative.

The fact remains, advertising keeps the web free and accessible. As the pendulum swings towards privacy, advertisers take on additional risk and the web’s free existence inches towards a subscription-based model, however unlikely.

For advertisers, the cookie is still in play, for now. Facebook and similar ad platforms are scrambling to account for a loss of targeting data where iOS is concerned, and browsers such as DuckDuckGo are growing in popularity. At Silverlight Digital our analytics teams use Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, and Facebook for reporting, among others. Google has recommended that use of the global site tag or Google Tag Manager remain in use to minimize any disruptions. Ad tech companies, publishers, and advertisers will participate and have access to FLoC as it develops.

To learn more about the development of FLoC read Google’s January announcement here and for a deep-dive, check out W3C’s GitHub analysis here.

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