2021-04-17

 17 Apr 2021  notes

The Philosophy of Google FLoC

My previous blog post reached the front page of Hacker News and accumulated very interesting and insightful comments .

I was careful to cite publications by both the EFF and Plausible Analytics; who have spent much more time and effort than I have considering the long-term implications of FLoC. I also included a mandatory link to Firefox, because Firefox is awesome .

I wanted to give some opinions on the issue from a non-technical standpoint. And while the FLoC discussion may have a lot of technical undertones (which naturally lends to it being seen as adversarial), I think the inflection point within the tech community began on a higher level with the initial pronouncements  by Google relating to third-party cookies, tracking, and privacy  on the web.

The tech community is way past the point of trusting Google to “do no evil” — and by Google I don’t mean the talented folks writing the code , but the higher-ups making the decisions.

FLoC being introduced as a seemingly innocuous replacement for third-party cookies forced us to view FLoC within the lens of the privacy-surveillance industry and not the advertising one. In my opinion, I don’t think anyone at this point believes that Google will sacrifice a dollar worth of profit in the name of improving that ecosystem for the better.

While Google does a lot of great thought-leadership in terms of web standards, in my view the questionable initiatives behind FLoC contributed to the larger distrust which are now playing out in the current debates.

Google ironically pontificated  (p. 13) the following:

We believe people should be able to access information about how their data is being collected and used for tailored ads in a consistent way, so they don’t have to learn multiple systems to set their preferences. And once users make changes to those preferences, their choices should be respected by everyone.

Here’s my version of what I think that statement should be:

A user should not have to set a preference within any system in order not to be tracked, nor to configure how much they should be tracked. Any system that seeks to configure tracking of users should never be standardized. Privacy is a human right, ipso facto the right not to be tracked should respected by default.

I strongly believe that there is no need for personalized data collection and user tracking to exist within the advertising industry; in any way, shape, or form.

If I visit a website about cars, and there’s an ad for a driving school, and then I visit a blog with camera reviews, and there’s an ad about a new DSLR… a correlation shouldn’t be made between those two visits, and for that matter among any sites that I visit whatsoever.

Forcing a digital business model into existence which is not sustainable and then keeping it propped up — by way of transacting business with the currency of user privacy — is not healthy for the web.

Is FLoC a good idea? I personally don’t think it is, and others who have weighed in on the intersection of adtech and privacy also seem to agree.

But is there a solution? The common consensus from what I can tell is that the advertising industry never needed personalized ads and tracking in the first place. In that sense, this current issue comes down to what may very well be a philosophical turning point rather than a technical one.

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