WordPress Weighs Disabling Google's Browser-Based Targeting Code

WordPress has proposed disabling the code Google is using to implement its new browser-based targeting system, in order to protect website visitors from discrimination.

Google's browser-based targeting system, which is currently being tested, relies on placing Chrome users into audience segments based on their web-browsing history, and then transmitting data about those segments directly to publishers.

Google has described the plan as an “innovation” and an alternative to tracking users with cookies.

But privacy advocates have raised several concerns about the plan, which Google has dubbed the “Federated Learning of Cohorts.”

One concern is that any information sent by the Chrome browser to publishers can potentially serve as a datapoint for device fingerprinting -- a tracking technique that involves identifying users based on data about their computers, including operating systems, IP addresses, browser versions, installed fonts and plug-ins.

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Another is that Chrome users won't be able to surf the web without also transmitting information about their potential interests -- unless users first opt out of the tracking technology.

“Every site you visit will have a good idea about what kind of person you are on first contact, without having to do the work of tracking you across the web,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said last month.

The organization added that targeting enables discrimination.

“By definition, targeted ads allow advertisers to reach some kinds of people while excluding others. A targeting system may be used to decide who gets to see job postings or loan offers just as easily as it is to advertise shoes,” the watchdog said. 

A developer at WordPress, which says it powers 41% of the web, wrote Sunday that disabling the code “can help combat racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and discrimination against those with mental illness.”

At the same time, the developer acknowledged, “websites who want to opt into FLoC are likely to have the technical know-how to simply override this proposed filter.”

Google has previously said it doesn't plan to create an audience segment based on sensitive data.

“Before a cohort becomes eligible, Chrome analyzes it to see if the cohort is visiting pages with sensitive topics, such as medical websites or websites with political or religious content, at a high rate,” Marshall Vale, product manager for Google's privacy sandbox, previously wrote on the company blog. “If so, Chrome ensures that the cohort isn’t used.”

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