Aldo Agostinelli

Google’s decision to remove third parties’ cookies may have been driven by something less honourable than the intention to protect users’ privacy. Here is what is going to change and how

It may seem good news: starting from 2022 Google is going to remove all cookies. No more data tracking, no commercials about the famous piece of furniture we once searched for and which has been popping up in every single web page we visit ever since then ( even though we have already purchased it ). Are we finally going to be released  from the hassle of cookies? Maybe not!

The issue is more complex than this. And thinking about Google as the new defender of privacy inevitably raises some rightful suspicions. I’ll try to put it down in an easy way here below (Charting a course towards a more privacy-first web).

From individuals to “cohorts”: FLoCs algorithm

What Google will actually do is removing third parties’ cookies from Chrome. Basically all cookies except its own. Which doesn’t mean he will be removing ALL cookies, at all.

A new algorithm shall analyse users’ habits, preferences, and origins to organize them according to the so-called FLoCs (Federated Learning of Cohorts). Such “cohorts” represent homogenous groups of users sharing the same cultural background, the same hobbies, tastes and so on, which will be targeted with the same types of advertising.

Let’s make an example: I open Chrome and I read Skytg24. In that very moment Google records a first party session and releases a tag corresponding to my session and will then carry on tracking all my next steps online. But if another publisher wishes to do it in 2022, they will not be able to do it since, thanks to Google’s one-sided decision, no-one will be allowed to track data except Google itself.

First assumption: instead of defending users’ privacy, Google is trying to strengthen its monopoly by getting rid of competitors to get full control of the whole advertising business (Google’s Privacy Sandbox—We’re all FLoCed).

Does group profiling protect privacy?

Apparently the “cohorts” system may turn out to be less intrusive since, instead of following and studying every individual in depth, it creates general categories such as

“men aged between 40 and 50 who love soccer”. Nevertheless, since no-one can actually be identified by means of a sole element, on the contrary we are all characterized by various aspects and interests, it is quite easy to create cross references among the groups. This way, profiles become quite specific: the smaller the cohorts, the higher the chances of being able to identify individuals. This system is really similar to the one used by Facebook with his “Lookalike Audience”, which may also risk to reinforce stereotypes and prejudices about specific groups. (Google’s scrapping third-party cookies – but invasive targeted advertising will live on).

Rules change. But not for Google

Basically, Google has changed the users’ tracking system and then has backed out through this “third parties’ cookies” mechanism which, by its own decision, will not affect the browser. Google has self-proclaimed as the “first party” directly involved in users’ activities.

This is quite weird: if I want to read some online news I expect the parties involved to be me and the website providing the news. But no: there is also a third party which is always there. So Chrome will carry on monitoring all the websites we browse. Android will keep on geolocating us, memorizing every wi-fi network we connect to and all the apps we use. Google Search will not stop remembering our searches, thus perfectly understanding our wishes.

So, with the excuse of protecting our privacy, the big ruler of the digital advertising global market, will continue to collect the data it needs, undisturbed. And moreover, exclusively! (Google’s Privacy Sandbox—We’re all FLoCed).

In conclusion, to answer the original question about what a cookies-less web will look like, I can say that little will change for us average users. We are still going to be monitored and profiled and we will still come across targeted advertising. And we should not forget that privacy laws, like the European GDPR, already exist. Google has just adapted to the current trend taking advantage of it to protect its rights.

As  consolation we can think that we are not alone. We are going to be part of a group, actually many groups. But they are called FLoCs, which makes a huge difference, doesn’t it?!

Despite everything, do you think users’ privacy will improve thanks to Google’s decision? Tweet @agostinellialdo

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Giulia Foschi