Google's Next-Gen FLoC Ad Tracking Tech Draws U.S. Antitrust Probe

Google Search on a Laptop
Google could potentially face an antitrust lawsuit if the United States Depart of Justice ultimately determines its pivot away from supporting third-party tracking cookies gives it an unfair advantage in the lucrative online advertising space. Nothing has been determined either way, but there is apparently a probe into the situation.

The issue at hand is Google's move away from allowing third-party cookies in its Chrome browser and replacing them with what it is calling the "Federated Learning of Cohorts," or FLoC for short. What exactly is FLoC? It is a way of tracking people via their cohort, or put more plainly, it is an algorithm that sorts people into groups of thousands of other people with similar browsing habits. A user's browsing history is kept locally on their machine, but companies can still ping them with targeted ads.

"This API democratizes access to some information about an individual’s general browsing history (and thus, general interests) to any site that opts into it. This is in contrast to today’s world, in which cookies or other tracking techniques may be used to collate someone’s browsing activity across many sites," Google explains on FLoC's GitHub page.

Sites that know people by way of signing in using their email address could still potentially record and reveal their cohort. But while not ideal, Google says this is still better than using third-party cookies, which can expose a person's exact browsing history.

That part is not the problem, as far as the DoJ is concerned. Instead, people familiar with the matter told Reuters the DoJ is investigating if eliminating cookies in Chrome will harm Google's smaller rivals. The concern is that this shift in tracking technology could reduce competition, in part through loopholes that would allow Google to continue using cookies, analytics tools, and other means.

"There is a weaponization of privacy to justify business decisions that consolidate power to their business and disadvantage the broader marketplace," said Chad Engelgau, chief executive of Interpublic Group of Companies Inc’s ad data unit Acxiom.

Google, meanwhile, contends that tracking users across the web is not the way to go "as privacy concerns continue to accelerate."

Playing into the overarching concern is Google's dominant position in the browser space. According to the latest data by StatCounter, it holds a greater than 63 percent share of the overall browser market, followed by Safari (Apple) in a distant second at 19 percent. The remaining browsers each claim less than a 4 percent stake, including Edge and Firefox.