User ability to opt-out key in Google FLoC debacle

Opt-out process should be easy and available to anyone who does not want advertising to be personalised, says chief science officer at Acquia, which has its own audience cohort analysis tool, and who calls for more transparency and user control.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Advertisers want to be effective in the content they push to consumers, but the latter must be given the ability to opt-out if they do not want personalised advertisement. This remains essential even as the debate over Google's Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) rages on. 

Marketers typically would want to reach out to segments of their audience, rather than just a single consumer. This was what cohorts set out to do, said Acquia's chief science officer Omer Artun, in a video call with ZDNet. 

Acquia offers tools that enable brands to create and track cohorts, as well as analyse their performance so they had the insights to improve their marketing campaigns. Snapshots of cohorts also could be captured to monitor how these audience segments evolved after the cohort was created. This allowed marketers to identify changes and trends in customer behaviour, and tweak their marketing activities to improve sales of items that were not selling well, for instance. 

Artun likened it to doctors treating an illness. Their primary goal here was not to know who the patients were, but to flush out the symptoms so they could identify the illness and decide on the treatment. 

Google's use of cohorts, however, had drawn strong criticism mainly for how the tech giant would share a summary of recent browser history with marketers. It had said FLoC removed the need for individual identifiers whilst still enabling brands to reach people with relevant content and ads by targeting clusters of people with common interests. 

Google last week began testing the feature for Chrome users in several countries, including India, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan, but not in markets where the European Union's GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was in place. 

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said in a post last month that the core design of FLoC involved sharing new information with advertisers that created new privacy risks. It pointed to browser fingerprinting as one key issue, as it gathered discrete pieces of information from a user's browser a unique identifier for that browser. "If a tracker starts with your FLoC cohort, it only has to distinguish your browser from a few thousand others--rather than a few hundred million," EFF said, adding that it would be easier for trackers to establish a unique fingerprint for FLoC users. 

The non-profit organisation added that FLoC also would share new personal data with trackers that could already identify users. "For FLoC to be useful to advertisers, a user's cohort will necessarily reveal information about their behaviour," it said. "Moreover, as your FLoC cohort will update over time, sites that can identify you in other ways will also be able to track how your browsing changes. Remember, a FLoC cohort is nothing more, and nothing less, than a summary of your recent browsing activity. You should have a right to present different aspects of your identity, in different contexts."

A few Chromium-based browsers including Vivaldi and Brave stepped up to say they had removed FLoC from their platforms over privacy concerns. WordPress also was considering blocking the Google feature from its blogging system. Search engine DuckDuckGo also released an extension that blocked FLoC. 

Asked for his comments over the latest developments, Artun told ZDNet there would be critics "to anything, anybody" with regards to advertising. "The idea is to create an efficient system of advertising while protecting privacy," he said. "If you don't want any advertising to be personalised, then opt-out [or] use another browser."

These alternative browsers operated to address a portion of the population that did not want advertising, he said. 

"FLoC is a good way to hide specific user information, but at the same time, group interests," he added. Artun noted that if advertisers were rendered "blind", then ads would be inefficient and consumers would end up paying more for whatever they wanted to purchase. 

Consumers should be able to control their own data

He said several issues also remained unclear, such as whether first-party data could be matched with FLoC identifiers, hence, giving more information about users than was available today. He expressed confidence that such issues would be addressed in future that balanced privacy and ad targeting. 

He reiterated that anyone still could opt out of and that this process should be made easy for those who wished to do so. 

Artun further advocated the need for "a Delete option", which would allow users such as him to view the cohorts they were segmented into and remove themselves from cohorts they did not want to be part of. 

"I should be able to go to a digital marketer's platform and delete it," he said. "Imagine if you can control the data and delete anything related to it. You don't have that option right now. To be able to see the data and be able to erase or control the data is what I think will be the nirvana [for consumers]."

He also called for more transparency on what online platforms such as Google and Amazon were doing with consumers' data. Giving users control over their data was, in itself, personalisation, he added. 

"Transparency and control--there are the two things that are missing right now," he noted. 


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