Just when you thought the ad ecosystem had lost its entertainment value, along come reports of an anti-hack hack in which Amazon is disrupting Google’s new tracking capability, called FLoC. That hack was discovered by a counter-hack. The facts of the story are interesting, but the narrative is even better. It goes like this:
Google, in an insincere mea culpa to the world for inventing cookies-as-behavioral-tracking technology, decided to stop its ubiquitous browser, Chrome, from allowing third-party cookies. This harms its competitors, gives Google a Pollyanna story for regulators, and makes it one of the few companies with data on virtually everyone. If Google had a PR person on truth serum, they might say this: "We were bad once, back when we did no evil, and now we’re being good by deciding what we used to do is evil and not doing it anymore." Maybe they are sorry. Maybe not.
Now, since Google’s action cripples some crucial aspects of online advertising, and since, as we said, Google invented cookie tracking and used it to attain its current stature, the company naturally wanted to fill the void. It did that with Floc, a targeting capability similar to cookies. Floc is a peace offering to appease Google's tribe, who frankly feel betrayed. It’s like an apology for Google's apology. To cut a long story short, FLoC is the methadone of identity: a sterile, marginally effective, but safe substitute for the real thing.
Enter, stage left, the 500-pound gorilla, Amazon. With enough juice to light up New York, Amazon don’t need no stinkin’ third-party data. It has gobs of first-party data as a byproduct of shopping, which it uses to drive a media business. Amazon know what you buy, where you live, and what you are getting for your birthday. It knows your relatives, hobbies, pants size, and bad habits, and it’s all for sale one way or another. With third-party cookies out of the picture, Amazon could own targeting.
But wait. Here comes FLoC, an entirely new way to target people based on their behavior. It’s controlled by Google, a supplier Amazon can’t bully -- and, in some important ways, a competitor. Like a dog, Amazon is curious about the new scent on the fire hydrant. So, a little butt-sniffing is in order.
Accordingly, Amazon has built code to flummox FLoC. In one MO, they just turn it off. This assures that browsers shopping at Amazon will not improve the accuracy of FLoC. In another hack, Amazon just toys with Floc, possibly as a prelude to deciding what Floc gets to know, and how it might be used as a strategic weapon. Amazon might discover a way to cause Floc to yield disinformation.
Is it trying to make Floc flop? Let’s write that off as “the fog of war” and focus on the obvious.
At a minimum, the hack shows Amazon has some respect for competitors. What it seems to be doing, like a boxer, is gauging the reach of its opponent’s jab. It is also obvious that Amazon is answering some good questions. Any publisher or retailer, not only Amazon, would have some ability to manipulate Floc. New game. New rules. What are they?
Amazon may be looking for evidence that FLoC knows something before Amazon knows it, and there are good reasons for that. After all, from Amazon’s point of view, Google is a consumer’s route to other retailers, so FLoC might yield insights about what business they don’t get. That’s a classic problem: A retailer’s biggest blind spot is the transactions it doesn’t see. For example, if Floc can show category interest, but Amazon’s data does not, that user is almost certainly going elsewhere for that category. That’s critical to marketing decisions.
Looking ahead, there is more entertainment in the offing. A post-antitrust Amazon would almost certainly have a squeaky media-data flywheel. How will it work if Amazon media can’t exploit shopping data without violating privacy? Maybe they will FLoC themselves? (Sorry). Maybe they will make their own browser. Guessing, but it’s not a bad idea, given that Google has decided to use Chrome as a sword against all other data owners.
At least, this news leaves the impression that the great and powerful Amazon is a little nervous. Some business strategy experts define a competitor as “anyone who can foil your plans.” This would be a case in point. Amazon might look at Google the way Aramco looks at Tesla.