Nobody is flying to join Google’s FLoC

Illustration by James Bareham / The Verge

Google is going it alone with its proposed advertising technology to replace third-party cookies. Every major browser that uses the open source Chromium project has declined to use it, and it’s unclear what that will mean for the future of advertising on the web.

A couple of weeks ago, Google announced it was beginning to test a new ad technology inside Google Chrome called the Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. It uses an algorithm to look at your browser history and place you in a group of people with similar browsing histories so that advertisers can target you. It’s more private than cookies, but it’s also complicated and has some potential privacy implications of its own if it’s not implemented right.

Google Chrome is built on an open source project, and so FLoC was implemented as part of that project that other browsers could include. I am not aware of any Chromium-based browser outside of Google’s own that will implement it and very aware of many that will refuse.

One note I’ll drop here is that I am relieved that nobody else is implementing FLoC right away, because the way FLoC is constructed puts a very big responsibility on a browser maker. If implemented badly, FLoC could leak out sensitive information. It’s a complicated technology that does appear to keep you semi-anonymous, but there are enough details to hide dozens of devils.

Anyway, here’s Brave: “The worst aspect of FLoC is that it materially harms user privacy, under the guise of being privacy-friendly.” And here’s Vivaldi: “We will not support the FLoC API and plan to disable it, no matter how it is implemented. It does not protect privacy and it certainly is not beneficial to users, to unwittingly give away their privacy for the financial gain of Google.”

We’ve reached out to Opera for comment as well, and here’s that company’s statement:

As you probably know, Opera has a long history of introducing privacy features that benefit our users: it was the first major browser to introduce built-in ad blocking, browser VPN and other privacy-centric features. The significance now is the end of third party cookies, which will reduce the amount of cross-website tracking on the web. While we and other browsers are discussing new and better privacy-preserving advertising alternatives to cookies including FloC, we have no current plans to enable features like this in the Opera browsers in their current form. Generally speaking, we do, however, think it’s too early to say in which direction the market will move or what the major browsers will do.

DuckDuckGo isn’t thought of as a browser, but it does make browsers for iOS and Android. On desktop, it’s already made a browser extension for other browsers to block it. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is very much against FLoC, has even made a website to let you know if you’re one of the few Chrome users who have been included in Google’s early tests.

But maybe the most important Chromium-based browser not made by Google is Microsoft Edge. It is a big test for Google’s proposed FLoC technology: if Microsoft isn’t going to support it, that would pretty much mean Chrome really will be going it alone with this technology.

In the grand tradition of Congressional tech hearings, I asked Microsoft a yes or no question: does it intend to implement FLoC in Edge? And in the same grand tradition, Microsoft answered:

We believe in a future where the web can provide people with privacy, transparency and control while also supporting responsible business models to create a vibrant, open and diverse ecosystem. Like Google, we support solutions that give users clear consent, and do not bypass consumer choice. That’s also why we do not support solutions that leverage non-consented user identity signals, such as fingerprinting. The industry is on a journey and there will be browser-based proposals that do not need individual user ids and ID-based proposals that are based on consent and first party relationships. We will continue to explore these approaches with the community. Recently, for example, we were pleased to introduce one possible approach, as described in our PARAKEET proposal. This proposal is not the final iteration but is an evolving document.

That is a LOT to unpack, but it sounds very much like a “no” to me. However, it’s a “no” with some important context. But before I get too deep into it, let’s talk about a couple of non-Chromium browsers — because one important piece of all of this is that Google’s FLoC technology is still a proposal. Google is saying it would like to make it a fundamental part of the web, not simply a new feature in its browser.

Here’s a statement that a Mozilla spokesperson provided to us on the plans for Firefox:

We are currently evaluating many of the privacy preserving advertising proposals, including those put forward by Google, but have no current plans to implement any of them at this time.

We don’t buy into the assumption that the industry needs billions of data points about people, that are collected and shared without their understanding, to serve relevant advertising. That is why we’ve implemented Enhanced Tracking Protection by default to block more than ten billion trackers a day, and continue to innovate on new ways to protect people who use Firefox.

Advertising and privacy can co-exist. And the advertising industry can operate differently than it has in past years. We look forward to playing a role in finding solutions that build a better web.

As for Apple’s Safari, I will admit I didn’t reach out for comment because at this point it’s not difficult to guess what the answer will be. Apple, after all, deserves some credit for changing everybody’s default views on privacy. However, the story here is actually much more interesting that you might guess at first. John Wilander is a WebKit engineer at Apple who works on Safari’s privacy-enhancing Intelligent Tracking Prevention features. He was asked on Twitter whether or not Safari would implement FLoC and here’s his reply:

Wilander’s reply jibes with Microsoft’s statement that “the industry is on a journey” when it comes to balancing new advertising technologies and privacy. But it speaks to something really important: web standards people take their jobs seriously and are seriously committed to the web standards process that creates the open web.

I often make light of that process as being slow, contentious, and frustrating. It is all those things. But it’s also the last line of defense against the complete and total fracturing of the web into pages that are only compatible with specific web browsers. That isn’t the web at all.

And so what you’d expect to be a hard “no” from Apple (and what will almost surely be a hard “no” in the end) instead becomes a commitment to the web standards process and taking Google’s proposals seriously. Ditto from Microsoft.

All of this is happening because every major browser already has or will soon block third-party cookies, the default way of identifying you and tracking you across the web. And every major browser has committed to ensuring that you can’t be personally identifiable to third-party advertisers. Even Google’s own ad team has said as much.

The end of those cookies is called the Cookiepocalypse, and it’s apocalyptic because nobody really knows what advertisers will do once those tracking methods are raptured. And so right now, major browser vendors are proposing different, new solutions.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have ideas for how advertising on the web should work. We’ve discussed Google’s FLoC at length, but you might be surprised to hear that Apple isn’t just trying to stop all ads; it has privacy-enhancing ad proposals of its own. And that random reference to PARAKEET in Microsoft’s statement? Another ad proposal.

The problem here is that the Cookiepocalypse is already nigh. Many browsers are already blocking third-party cookies. Google Chrome is the big holdout on blocking third-party cookies, but it’s also the browser with the biggest market share.

Google has committed to cutting off third-party cookies in 2022, but it seems very unlikely that the web standards process will get to an answer by then. In fact, one of Google’s other proposals isn’t going to begin testing until late this year — far too late to be implemented by the ad industry if Google sticks to its original promise. Who knows what advertisers will do then?

The technology here is complicated, the process is slow, and the outcome is unclear. That’s par for the course for the web. Normally I’d tell you not to worry about it and just let the W3C run its course. But the stakes are very high: your privacy, vast pools of money, and the interoperable nature of the web itself could all go up in a puff of smoke if these browser makers don’t figure out a way to thread all these needles. Cookiepocalypse, indeed.

Update, 2:15PM ET April 16th: added statement from Opera.

Correction, 6:30PM ET April 16th: Noted that DuckDuckGo does produce browsers for iOS and Android.


Hopefully everyone rebels against AMP as well.

With all the things Google shuts down, they should shut down AMP.

Google is willing to shut down projects that give it more mindshare but doesn’t heavily leverage data. Google rarely shuts down projects that leverage data they can’t get through other means.

I hate AMP so so much. The content doesn’t display properly (or at all). Then it’s a struggle just to get the mobile site to display, let alone desktop site since AMP uses it’s own URL.

AMP was started by Google, but is now a well adopted open web technology. It’s freaking awesome, I really don’t understand the hate everybody puts on it. Most of it doesn’t even apply anymore.

See my comment above for why I hate it. What’s good about it?

I feel like I had a lot of issues with amp a while ago, but something must have happened in the last year because now I don’t even notice it and have not had any of the issues you describe in probably the last 6 months.

I’m certain this varies depending on the sites you access but IMO it has improved drastically.

I’ve never had an issue with content displaying properly, it loads much faster, generally has fewer ads and is more focused on the content.

It defies so many standards. It has its own scrolling behaviour (unnatural), you can’t tap the status bar to scroll to the top (on iOS), search in page content doesn’t work well, sharing it is crap and going to the actual page takes 2 taps. Plus it’s bad lock-in of the open web.

The only positive thing is fast load times. The rest of it kind of sucks. Most of the content doesn’t display properly for me.

And even the fast load times get wasted when you then have to switch over to the non-AMP version to perform some basic action.

Yep, agree. It’s a much stronger foundation for the mobile web than what came before it. A lot of the problems with missing content, links, and comment sections have been resolved.

There’s just going to be a lot of bias because first impressions stick.

This…it used to suck but has gotten much better.

It still sucks for me every single day.

To have access to my employer’s email, calendar, etc., I need to use an iPhone or (checks notes) a different iPhone. And using Chrome on my iPhone, I get sites from AMP that don’t render properly or don’t function Every. Single. Day.

How old is your iPhone? And your iOS?

iOS versions are generally pretty up to date, and even if they aren’t, it shouldn’t matter. Google shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken and also shouldn’t lock in on the web.

About 2 years and current. Maybe I should just try Firefox, but I’d prefer to avoid AMP.

The only thing AMP is good for is giving me a limited webpage that is incompatible with my browser’s reader mode and incompatible with comment sections. So essentially the feature that is supposed to save me time makes me have to click through one useless link to the real article website.

This. To comment on this article, I went from the AMP page to the Verge homepage and then found the full version of the article.

AMP sucks donkey dick.

They’re doing a service for you by missing the comment section

It’s awesome to be led to broken versions of websites that don’t display properly, have links that don’t work, and don’t allow me to login to sites or comment on them? WTF are you smoking?

Full disclosure: My negative experience relates to Chrome on iOS.

It’s basically WAP pages for the 2020s. Steve Jobs didn’t give us a full web browser on our palms with the iPhone and the mobile / responsive web revolution, and died for this shit to come back again.

This time, not being held back by a proprietary web plugin like Adobe Flash, but by Google’s AMP in the guise of open source effort to make the heavily stripped down and fast. And did I forgot to tell that it’s an obvious growth hack to Google Search delivery too?

Device performance revolution should be the one that should push open web to be more and more democratized. Not other way around.
Because it’ll only fragment the already fragmented, inconsistent experience of open web more and more.

It wouldn’t be needed if normal pages didn’t take 5-6s to load because of all the spam adverts and javascript boxes of clickbait, adverts that move while you scroll and midpage videos that autoplay.

I fucking hate browsing the web these days without a adblocker. It’s a joke.

Agree with this. Typically I like it because it’s fast and stripped down. If I’m really interested in what I’m reading, which isn’t the case on most clicks, I’ll click the link. The real issue – with this and floc – is the balancing act between privacy, speed, and economic viability of the web.

Yeah, it’s a solution to a problem that advertisers and publishers put themselves into. We could revert to a world where only text and images under a certain size are allowed in ads and we could disallow third party tracking and analytics on each individual ad and we’d easily be back to <1mb per page load. Instead, the publisher brow beats their in house development teams to trim and cut the core CSS and Javascript to improve their metrics, ignoring the vast majority of bloat comes from the ad team and their ever increasing Google Tag Manager tag alongs.

You’re absolute right about that. But did you also notice AMP has all those same Cookie, Newsletter and ads popups as well?

Not a valid reason for AMP to exist. It’s just redudancy

View All Comments
Back to top ↑