Tuesday, 13 April 2021 06:48

Brave browser chiefs slam Google's new experimental ad-targeting tech Featured

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The Brave browser will not support Google's experimental new technology for ad targeting, known as Federated Learning of Cohorts, two senior officials from the organisation behind the browser say.

In a blog post titled "A step in the wrong direction", senior privacy researcher Peter Snyder and chief executive Brendan Eich said FLoC, as it is known, would make any browser that implemented support share a user's browsing behaviour and interests with every site and advertiser on sites which were visited.

"Brave opposes FLoC, along with any other feature designed to share information about you and your interests without your fully informed consent," the duo said.

"To protect Brave users, Brave has removed FLoC in the Nightly version of both Brave for desktop and Android. These changes will reach all Brave users in the next stable release this week. Brave is also disabling FLoC on our websites, to protect Chrome users learning about Brave."

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Google's testing of FLoC was not publicly announced by the company and came to light after the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organisation that fights for digital rights, announced the launch of a trial on 30 March.

A blog post by EFF staff technologist Bennett Cyphers said the only way people could opt out at the moment was by disabling third-party cookies. "We’ve been told that the trial is currently deployed to 0.5% of Chrome users in some regions – for now, that means Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the US," he wrote.

Snyder and Eich said companies were finally beginning to respect user privacy, due to increased user education, the success of privacy-first tools and laws, including the CCPA [California Consumer Privacy Act] and the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation].

"In the face of these trends, it is disappointing to see Google, instead of taking the present opportunity to help design and build a user-first, privacy-first Web, proposing and immediately shipping in Chrome a set of smaller, ad-tech-conserving changes, which explicitly prioritise maintaining the structure of the Web advertising ecosystem as Google sees it," the two said.

"For the Web to be trusted and to flourish, we hold that much more is needed than the complex, yet conservative, chair-shuffling embodied by FLoC and Privacy Sandbox.

"Deeper changes to how creators pay their bills via ads are not only possible, but necessary. The success of Brave’s privacy-respecting, performance-maintaining, and site-supporting advertising system shows that more radical approaches work. We invite Google to join us in fixing the fundamentals, undoing the harm that ad-tech has caused, and building a Web that serves users first."

Eich, who invented JavaScript and some years ago headed the Mozilla Foundation, the organisation behind Firefox, and Snyder said the worst aspect of FLoC was that it "materially harms user privacy, under the guise of being privacy-friendly".

They detailed three aspects of FLoC that they claimed were particularly harmful and concerning.

First, they said, FLoC informed sites about a user's browsing history. "FLoC shares information about your browsing behaviour with sites and advertisers that otherwise wouldn’t have access to that information. Unambiguously, FLoC tells sites about your browsing history in a new way that browsers categorically do not today."

Eich and Snyder knocked back Google's claims that FLoC was preserving privacy in comparison to third-party cookies and because so-called interest cohorts were designed not to be unique to a user.

"Many browsers don’t send third-party cookies at all; Brave hasn’t ever," the two said. "Saying a new Chrome feature is privacy-improving only when compared to status-quo Chrome (the most privacy-harming popular browser on the market), is misleading, self-serving, and a further reason for users to run away from Chrome.

"Many things about a person are i) not unique, but still ii) personal and important, and shouldn’t be shared without consent," they said about the second Google claim.

"Whether I prefer to wear 'men’s' or 'women’s' clothes, whether I live according to my professed religion, whether I believe vaccines are a scam, or whether I am a gun owner, or a Brony-fan, or a million other things, are all aspects of our lives that we might like to share with some people, but not others, and under our terms and control.

The other two aspects of FLoC which Eich and Snyder cited as being against user interests were that it made tracking users across the Web easier and promoting a false notion of privacy and why it was important.

"Overall, FLoC, along with many other elements of Google’s 'Privacy Sandbox' proposal, are a step backward from more fundamental, privacy-and-user focused changes the Web needs," the two Brave officials said.

"Instead of deep change to enforce real privacy and to eliminate conflicts of interest, Google is proposing Titanic-level deckchair-shuffling that largely maintains the current, harmful, inefficient system the Web has evolved into, a system that has been disastrous for the Web, users and publishers."


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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