WordPress is considering a proposal that would block Google’s third-party cookie alternative by default on all sites powered by its content management system, over privacy concerns. The proposal—which is not yet finalized—would add several lines of code to WordPress-powered sites to detect Google’s alternative tracking technology, called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), and label it a “security threat.” WordPress is also considering creating a toggle switch to allow its end users to opt in to FLoC on their sites, if they so desire.
If WordPress moves forward with its proposal, it would join a coalition of internet companies publicly opposing FLoC citing privacy concerns.
FLoC uses machine learning within browsers to sort internet users into groups—called cohorts—of thousands of people based on their perceived interests, which advertisers can then use instead of cookies to serve targeted ads. While FLoC supporters like analyst Eric Seufert have called it a “sensible approach to privacy-preserving ads targeting,” critics like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) claim it presents new privacy issues and expands Google’s data-gathering power beyond the capability afforded by cookies. Bennett Cyphers, an EFF technologist, observes that FLoC shares summaries of user’s recent browsing activity with marketers, raising questions specifically over cross-context exposure and Google’s use of fingerprinting practices which, Cyphers argues, combine to create a system that could ultimately exacerbate discrimination and predatory targeting.
If WordPress chooses to label FLoC as a security threat, it could cut Google off from a sizable chunk of monetizable behavioral data. Defiant web browsers can impede FLoC’s reach, but only to a marginal extent: GoogleChrome made up a whopping 68% of worldwide desktop web browser traffic share in Q4 2020, per StatCounter. On the other hand, WordPress’ sphere of influence transcends some browsers—by its own estimation, WordPress-powered sites reportedly account for at least 41% of all websites. WordPress finds itself with the power to act as an arbiter of advertising and data privacy, deciding the nature and degree of the targeted ads that appear on sites it hosts. If WordPress takes such a stance, it could open the door for other providers of internet infrastructure to follow suit.