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The Data Drop Panel: July 2021

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Our host and self-confessed ‘data protection contrarian’ Carey Lening takes a deeper dive into some of the most important, concerning, and downright fascinating data privacy and data protection items covered by the Data Drop News podcast in recent weeks.

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Carey: Hi and welcome to this month's episode the Data Collaboration Alliance's Data Drop Panel. We'll be digging into two hot topics this week. First is the rise and fall of Google's planned efforts to ditch third-party cookies. And the second is the proposed European Commission regs on AI. I'm really excited to introduce this week's guests who will be able to contribute lots of knowledge and insight on these topics.

First is Dan DeMers the President of the Data Collaboration Alliance and CEO and co-founder of Cinchy the pioneering Dataware platform. Second, we have Jeff Jockisch, the CEO of PrivacyPlan where he does independent data privacy research and creates really awesome privacy-centric data sets. And finally, we have Kelly Finnerty who is the Director of Brand and Content at Startpage which doves itself the world's most private search engine. So with that, let's kick it off.

Google Gives Up on the FLoC

Carey: So in 2020, for those of us who may have been following, Google announced that it would phase out the use of third-party cookies in Chrome. And they were estimating that this would be done by around 2022 and if you don't know because you've been living under a rock for a while, third-party cookies are used by advertisers and social media companies like Facebook and innumerable others to track our movements across the internet. While the announcement wasn't particularly big news at first, and it certainly wasn't groundbreaking because Firefox and Safari have already given users the ability to opt out of third-party cookies for some time.

And search engines like Startpage also don't use first or third-party cookies. Google drew controversy nonetheless because they announced that they would be replacing the third-party cookies with this new system called FLoC. And then they were also going to be trialing it on millions of users/browsers over the next few months, largely without their permission. FLoC or Federated Learning of Cohorts replaces the individualized data collection of third-party cookies with a data set of groups or cohorts.

It still lets advertisers track us, though maybe with a little less granularity and a little less directness than before. Now privacy advocates and the ad industry and regulators all kind of collectively lost their minds and they expressed a lot of concerns that this was privacy washing essentially.

So, especially since Google was careful to say that they weren't going to get rid of first-party cookies because that's how they make their money. But many were also displeased about how Google was forcing people to opt-out and rather than opt-in terms of being a guinea pig on this test. And then last week Google took it all back.

They said that third-party cookies weren't going to go live at all. And they were going to get rolled out very gradually starting in Q2 2023. And that the "cluster FLoC" as it were would undergo much more review and regulatory scrutiny at a more responsible pace. So what does this mean for privacy in search guys? Let's talk first about third-party cookies. So I think everybody kind of collectively hates third-party cookies. No one gets excited about them except for maybe advertisers and Facebook. But many privacy advocates, including the EFF, have stated that FLoC doesn't really solve the problem. In fact, it just kind of is still an invasive form of targeting, even if it's just at the cohort level.

So I have to ask you Kelly first, since, you know, you work with Startpage and Startpage has managed to successfully do all of their services without first or third party cookies, you know, Is this FLoC thing a solution in search of a problem?

Kelly: Ah, thanks, Carey. First of all, I love the phrase "cluster FLoC". That makes me laugh. Thank you for that one. Yes, so internally when we were talking about FLoC at Startpage, you know, we were saying really it's a transition from cookies to categories. And you know, is that just sort of just changing the name versus the actual practice? Have you gone have either or any of you gone into your Google profile and it shows you where you can kind of turn on and off different ad personalization?

Yeah. So, right. So that's a really interesting place to go to understand what information is being collected on you and how you're being profiled online. To me, that's the clearest way to understand how these categories are being drawn out. How you're being put into these different cohorts. I, before this call, went on just to see what does that look like for me right now?

And you know, I, while I search on many different browsers, I like to have kind of a mix just to spread out my work, and usually, I'm on different sites on different browsers, but anyways, I was really interested to see what was on this Google profile for me yesterday and some of them completely ring true.

And then some were just total outliers. Like it had, in terms of locations that I was interested and searching about was Kuwait. Seems unlikely, maybe, right.

It really racked my brain and I could not think of what that could have been from. So anyway, what I'm getting to is that we