What is Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoCs)?

Federated Learning of Cohorts is a method Google has devised to track Internet users’ interests and serve them ads relevant to those interests.

The method aims to be attentive to privacy by grouping thousands of users into these interest-based cohorts. Therefore, the thinking goes, users still see ads relevant to them, but ads less finely correspond to their personal browsing history.

How does Federated Learning of Cohorts work?

Internet browsers, such as Google’s Chrome, will develop and update FLoC cohorts continually based on the URLs users visit and possibly the content of the sites they visit. That’s according to a GitHub write-up of the FLoC proposal.

FLoC’s architects said they would only log cohorts with sync data for users who do not block third-party cookies and have “ad personalization” enabled in Chrome settings. In other words, some level of consent is baked into the ad tech innovation.

Why is this happening now?

A global push to boost Internet privacy, or data privacy, is growing in strength. Europe passed a major privacy regulation nearly three years ago, California has passed two referenda on the subject, and the US is considering federal action.

Perhaps more importantly, major tech companies are taking steps to boost privacy. Apple is preventing iPhone tracking by default, empowering users to opt in to tracking based on the identifier for advertisers, or IDFA. Google has said it will kill third-party cookies by January 2022, preventing access to much of the behavioral data that drives ads across the Web.

Much of the privacy discourse of late has focused on cookies and how advertisers will get third-party data. That data is the key to targeting new customers online. FLoCs could be one way to do that that is more respectful of privacy than third-party cookies.

Will FLoCs be as effective as cookies?

Google has claimed that FLoCs will be as much as 95% as effective as third-party cookies. The company said early testing has indicated this. If true, this would be a win-win for advertisers and users who’d like their information to remain private. Ads are just as effective; user information remains a bit more obscure.

AdExchanger supplies a great roundup of industry perspectives on this claim and the future of FLoCs. Reactions varied from unsurprised enthusiasm to skepticism.

Everyone wants to know how Google will integrate FLoCs into the advertising ecosystem. Many would also like more data to demonstrate their efficacy relative to 1:1 behavioral targeting.

Google has said it will make FLoCs available for developer testing next month.

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018 and compiled the daily newsletter since 2016. Joe is a journalist who has written widely about technology, business, and politics. You can contact him at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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