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Google’s FLoC flies into headwinds as internet ad industry braces for instability • The Register

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Analysis With Google testing its FLoC ad technology in preparation for the planned elimination of third-party cookies next year, uncertainty about potential problems and growing legal support for privacy is shaking up the digital ad industry.

The move away from third-party cookies will have significant financial impact on the ad industry, and the internet ecosystem that depends on advertising – assuming you accept studies that credit third-party cookies with meaningful [PDF] rather than minimal [PDF] revenue.

“Our analysis suggests that the publishing industry will have to replace up to $10 billion in ad revenue with a combination of first-party data gathered through a combination of paywalls and required registrations, and updated contextual targeting and probabilistic audience modeling (analytics that incorporate an array of unknown elements),” said consultancy McKinsey in a recent report.

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In place of third-party data, a number of ad industry firms expect first-party platforms – e.g. Amazon selling ads on its own website to marketers using the customer data it has collected – will prosper and perhaps challenge the Google/Facebook duopoly.

“In contrast to third-party data, which is built from third-party cookies, first-party data is gathered by businesses which have interacted directly with consumers,” said Gowthaman Ragothaman, CEO of Aqilliz, a blockchain marketing analytics firm, in an email to The Register.

“Of course, digital marketers understand that it is the most powerful source of information for targeting and personalization purposes, as it provides more accurate and valuable insights into consumers’ behavior and buying patterns.”

Ragothaman believes there will be more focus on first-party data, though he expects a difficult transition. “Every publisher whether in emerging markets or developed markets understands the need to build its own first-party data platform,” he said. “But it is not easy. It cannot be done overnight either.”

Chocolate Factory plans

Google hopes FLoC and related web plumbing proposals, referred to collectively as Google’s Privacy Sandbox, will serve as substitutes for the sort of interest-based advertising and remarketing made possible by third-party cookies.

FLoC stands for Federated Learning of Cohorts. It’s being built into Google Chrome browser to replace the interest-based targeting made possible by third-party cookies, which other browser makers now mostly block by default for privacy reasons and Google has agreed to drop in Chrome next year.

FLoC is a browser API that groups people into cohorts or flocks of people with similar interests, based on the web domains they visit. It makes its calculations locally, in the browser, thereby preventing people’s web histories from being shared with third parties, in theory. It’s supposed to provide more privacy than third-party cookies though recent repudiations by other browser makers and privacy groups show that issue hasn’t been settled.

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Google’s ‘privacy-first’ ad tech FLoC squawks when Chrome goes Incognito, says expert. Web giant disagrees

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Google has a number of ad tech allies that have already expressed support for FLoc, like Criteo, NextRoll, Magnite, and RTB House. But other ad tech firms like LiveRamp, Mediamath, Pacvue, and The Trade Desk are working on alternative ad targeting schemes, in part because there’s an opportunity to innovate and in part because FLoC may fail.

FLoC’s requirement that Chrome users be signed-in to their Google Accounts, Ragothaman observes, presents problems under Europe’s GDPR data privacy rules where explicit user consent is required.

“At the moment, selected Google Chrome users are automatically added to the cohorts, without the option to opt out for their trials, which has not gone down well in the industry,” he said. “If Google fails to implement measures that sufficiently address lawmakers’ privacy concerns, there’s a possibility that FLoC will not become a reality in the EU.”

“This would certainly have a significant impact on the advertising supply chain in the bloc once third-party cookies are phased out, given that Google commands as much as 90 per cent of the search engine market share in Europe. As such, Google has delayed their next solution, FLEDGE, by almost a year.”

Zach Edwards, co-founder of web analytics biz Victory Medium, told The Register that he expects FLoC will be deployed but hopes it will be abandoned for more promising Privacy Sandbox proposals like FLEDGE.

“FloC is an automated audience creation process that is obviously not compliant with GDPR due to FLoC’s opt-out framework, and FloC is brushing right up against non-compliance with value transfer user data restrictions in CCPA and other frameworks restricting automated profiling,” he said. “FLoC was dreamed up by math bros at Google who wanted to try and break consent on the internet just one more time.”

That sentiment has been expressed by organizations like The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which recently called FLoC “a terrible idea.” But more damning is the disinterest coming from other browser makers.

Browser makers not keen

Earlier this week, Apple WebKit security and privacy engineer John Wilander expressed concern that Google’s FLoC algorithm, being tested in Google’s Chrome browser, can be used to construct identifiers for tracking people as they visit different websites.

Doubts about FLoC have become more evident in the past few days. Rival browser makers Brave and Vivaldi have indicated they believe FLoC poses a privacy threat and say they won’t support it. Mozilla has been more cautious, merely signaling current indifference. And Wilander’s worries suggest Apple isn’t likely to adopt the technology in Safari, which is hardly surprising given Apple’s public stance on privacy. (Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

That leaves Microsoft Edge as the only plausible ally among the major browser makers. Edge users have recently asked for clarification about FLoC but Microsoft has not made any formal commitment. The Register understands that’s because FLoC isn’t currently a web standard. If Google manages to finesse FLoC to an acceptable state then support could be forthcoming.

What concerns Wilander is that over time, Cohort IDs, the numbers assigned to the multiple interest groups that become associated with a web user, may prove useful to create a unique identifier for that individual, perhaps in combination with other device-derived data points used for browser fingerprinting.

“Before the pandemic and some time back, I attended a Mew concert, a Ghost concert, Disney on Ice, and a Def Leppard concert,” he said, to illustrate his concern about the potential misuse of interest group identifiers. “At each of those events I was part of a large crowd. But I bet you I was the only one to attend all four.”

The Register asked Google whether it cared to address Wilander’s observations. A company spokesperson declined to comment directly but noted that FLoC is a collaborative project that is still underway and pointed out that Google mathematician Michael Kleber on Thursday posted a response to Wilander.

“This is indeed the “Longitudinal privacy” question,” Kleber said. “We’ve been considering a few different mitigations. As you know, this is an iterative and open process, and we expect to implement one or more of these solutions in future versions of FLoC.”

Work to be done

Aside from concerns about its technical soundness, the unfinished nature of FLoC makes it difficult to be certain how it will really function. It’s essentially a placeholder for an improved version of itself.

Clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done. Take for example the recent W3C Privacy Interest Group (PING)’s assessment of FLoC, which argues the technology’s use case is “a privacy harm in itself.” Or the issue raised by Steven Englehardt, privacy engineer at Mozilla, that Google’s FLoC proposal “makes false claims about the privacy properties provided by the anonymization techniques.” Or Terrence Eden’s question about why users would want FLoC. Or EFF technologist Bennett Cypher’s observation that FLoC’s SimHash algorithm may leak data.

FLoC’s state of flux is compounded by Google’s handling of the FLoC rollout. Edwards observes that Google’s decision to opt every website into the FLoC has put visitors to government websites at risk of deanonymization by linking them to cohort groups derived from their site visits.

The way to opt-out requires setting the Permissions-Policy header interest-cohort=(), which isn’t feasible for people with websites on some hosting platforms and, Edwards worries, may not have been clearly communicated to government IT admins.

Adalytics, an ad tech firm, confirmed as much when it found that websites for the European Data Protection Supervisor, the Irish Data Protection Authority, and the US National Security Agency, among others, all triggered updates for Chrome users’ FLoC IDs. So in theory, an adversary operating a website could read this ID and perhaps draw conclusions about whether a visitor had previously visited specific government websites.

Flock_swarm_of_birds

EFF urges Google to ground its FLoC: ‘Pro-privacy’ third-party cookie replacement not actually great for privacy

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Edwards said he’d be happy if FLoC flops but said he expects it will be deployed despite its rocky start. “For Google, FloC is ‘just the right amount of privacy, with a ton of revenue benefits’ – but for end users, this automated audience creation process baked into the browser has been a cluster-FLoC since day one,” he said.

Edwards expressed more enthusiasm for FLEDGE, another Privacy Sandbox proposal due for future testing that better aligns with privacy laws.

Even so, change isn’t easy. Witness the W3C Technical Architecture Group’s panning of First-Party Sets, another Privacy Sandbox proposal.

Gowthaman said there’s still a long way to go before the industry can make a transition from third-party data to first-party.

“It requires a complete overhaul to the existing technological infrastructures that are at play,” he said. “We need to capture the consent and convey the same across the digital supply chain, which requires large scale re-architecture. The industry understands the jobs to be done and the time is running out.”

In the meantime, he expects cohort-based targeting is inevitable, at least until the ad tech industry settles on a solution that scales. “There are quite a few players in the ad tech ecosystem experimenting with the cookie replacement solution,” he said. “Today there are as many as 80 Identity solutions in the marketplace, all trying to offer an alternative to cookies.”

Whatever happens, he argues, it’s imperative that the new technology infrastructure allows for legally compliant data-sharing across the digital supply chain.

Likewise, Marc Goldberg, chief revenue officer of Method Media Intelligence, a marketing analytics business, says that whatever technologies rise to replace third-party cookies, they must avoid repeating past mistakes.

“It is important that all of these options don’t resurface the problem of privacy in another form,” he said. “While the rates might go down (read premium for advanced targeting) and some things will break (or not work as well) in the end, the shift of spend to other mediums won’t happen. Eyeballs are still online and buyers will find them. The tactics and strategies will change, which is not a bad thing.” ®

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New EU law may force big messaging vendors to open up • The Register

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The European Parliament’s new Digital Markets Act, adopted as a draft law this week, could compel big platforms owned by large firms including Apple, Google, and Facebook to make their tech interoperable.

Among other things, this might mean forcing the tech vendors’ messaging apps to allow communication with other services.

If the EU deems a company to be what it calls a “gatekeeper”, it could impose “structural or behavioural remedies” – compelling the largest outfits to allow interoperability, or imposing fines. The Act would also restrict what companies could do with personal data – not the first time it’s tried.

While the legislation carefully phrases the characteristics that make a company a gatekeeper in terms of its operations inside the EU, the fines are assessed against global revenue. It applies to companies that provide a “core platform service” in at least three EU nations, with more than 45 million monthly users and 10,000 business users. In money terms, it’s talking about €8bn a month inside the union, and a market cap of 10 times that.

A potential get-out is that it applies to “number-independent interpersonal communication services” – so services that identify you by your phone number rather than an account, such as Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal, and the like, might be able to dodge the new rules, which won’t come into force for a year or two.

As we pointed out a week ago, services already exist that can talk to most vendors’ proprietary offerings. Nothing technical prevents this and many of the services talked to one another in the past.

For example, Apple’s iMessage originally used AOL’s OSCAR protocol, and AOL allowed authentication using Gmail credentials. Google’s Chat, Talk, and Hangouts, and Facebook Messenger, all used the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol or XMPP – to and from which Skype offered a gateway.

As far as the phone number-based systems go, there’s also an existing standard for internet-based SMS – not that anybody cares. ®

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What happens when we ‘power through’ burnout?

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Employers know that burnout levels are increasing, but it’s important to step in and tackle it head on before it’s too late.

A recent survey from HRLocker found that more than half (52pc) of respondents are experiencing burnout.

The company surveyed 1,000 full-time employees across Ireland to assess their stress levels and the primary causes of stress.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

This is common thread with many other surveys and reports from around the world suggesting a significant increase in stress, exhaustion and burnout among the global workforce.

Another recent survey, this one of US workers, found that 89pc of respondents reported experiencing burnout over the past year.

While it’s easy to acknowledge that this increase in burnout is a problem, it’s a very different thing to take steps to actually address it, whether you’re an employee on the verge of crashing or a manager starting to notice the signs among your team.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a “occupational phenomenon”. While this can seem problematically vague for those who are experiencing it, Prof John Gallagher, chief medical officer at Cork-based Cognate Health, sees it from a different perspective.

He said that because burnout is considered a workplace phenomenon, it is not so much about the individual as much as it is about the impact that the workplace environment has on them.

“We can support the individual, but the real question is how do we fix the workplace and the impact it is having on the employee?”

‘The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact’
– DR SARAH O’NEILL

Many people will be familiar with the symptoms of burnout, which include profound exhaustion, cynicism about work, decreased productivity and extreme emotions.

However, it’s also worth noting that some people are more prone to burnout than others. “More often than not these are the more idealistic, committed and dedicated employees,” said Gallagher.

Dr Sarah O’Neill, chartered psychologist and chief clinical officer at Spectrum Life, agrees that it can often affect the most high-achieving employees. However, she said there are other people who can be prone to burnout too.

“People can also experience ‘bore-out’ when they are in a role that is dull, repetitive and there is a distinct lack of stimulation. The third common iteration is when people become worn down over a period of time,” she said.

“While the first example may be much more aligned with what we think of when we imagine burnout, the end result is the same.”

When the elastic band snaps

Burnout occurs when there are unusual levels of pressure or stress over a prolonged period of time. Those who start to suffer the symptoms will most likely have been ‘on’ for a long time with no opportunity to rest and recover.

“Think about an elastic band,” said O’Neill. “They stretch and bounce back. If the band is stressed, stretched out without the opportunity to bounce back and reset, overtime it loses its stretch. You can think about stress this way. Then burnout is when the band eventually snaps.”

Often, employees don’t mean to ignore their own health. Even the overachievers would rather reap the rewards that come with rest and recovery, which are higher energy levels, more productivity and better focus.

But sometimes an ongoing stressful period seems never-ending, like during a pandemic for example, and it can feel impossible to find the time to actually stop and take a break. You might just feel like you have to power through your stress in the hope that you’ll make it to the end of the tunnel.

However, it is this ‘powering through’ that will directly result in burnout. While it’s important for employees to be aware of this, Gallagher said it’s vital that employers and managers know when to step in.

“What employers and managers will see if an issue isn’t addressed is that the person will pull back and distance themselves from their work, become more cynical and ultimately disengage from the workplace completely. The physical symptoms are similar to those seen across other mental health issues such as feelings of exhaustion and weariness, as well as bowel and stomach problems,” he said.

“It’s important that managers engage with employees early once they see any of these warning signs and that they check in to see if the person is OK. Often the people that are most likely of experiencing burnout are those who take on more and more work without raising any red flags about their mental health and ability to cope.”

O’Neill agreed that early intervention is key but that it’s also important that managers understand how each member of the team responds to stress and pressure within the workplace.

“It’s critical for managers to know their teams well enough to recognise when something is off. That makes it possible to mitigate issues before they progress too far by managing an employee’s workload and having open conversations with them about the mental wellbeing,” she said.

The pandemic effect

Burnout has been a concern for employers and employees for several years now but, as we have seen from recent surveys and reports, the pandemic has likely compounded the stressors that can bring about burnout.

O’Neill said there has been a 30pc increase in people presenting with burnout compared to pre-pandemic trends.

“The blurring of the lines between work and life has had an impact and we’re seeing pretty consistent results from research where employees are identifying blurring of boundaries impacting their mental health.”

Gallagher has seen a similar increase, including increased incidences of anxiety and depression.

“It would seem that mental health concerns will be at the core of our work in occupational health for the foreseeable future. There are the more obvious reasons for this – increased feelings of isolation, loneliness, disconnection from people, as well as the general stress and anxiety of living during a global health crisis,” he said.

“But this is all compounded by the fact that it is easier to hide any issues from your colleagues and employers while working remotely and being less connected in real life.”

However, it’s not all bad news. O’Neill also said there are some positives to be gleaned from the pandemic when it comes to mental health. “We have collectively lived through a traumatic time which has, at its best, given us a new perspective on our lives. The theory of post-traumatic growth shows how a difficult experience can shift your values and your perspective on different situations in life, allowing you to move through them and grow as a result.”

Employers’ duty of care

While it’s important for employees to watch out for signs of burnout in themselves, both O’Neill and Gallagher agree that managers have a duty of care when it comes to workplace risks for their employees and these risks must include psychosocial risks.

“What I always say is that managers and employers need to ‘ask, don’t assume’ when it comes to discussing mental health concerns. We can’t assume a person is dealing with an issue and we can’t leave them to handle it by themselves. Managers need to reach out to employees and ask them how they are doing, especially if there have been any warning signs,” said Gallagher.

“Sometimes employers and managers prefer to pull back when an employee appears to be dealing with a mental health issue but that is when we need to lean in and address it openly and directly.”

‘We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health’
– JOHN GALLAGHER

O’Neill said it’s also important to look at the supports in place for teams, such as an employee assistance programme, and examine whether or not they are sufficient.

“We know people are increasingly experiencing mental health distress, that impacts them in the workplace and the mental healthcare system is, like many parts of the health service, overwhelmed by demand,” she said.

“Even if mental health distress is not a work-related issue, it can be in the interests of companies to provide support to employees from both a cultural and business perspective.”

While having support systems in place are vital, Gallagher highlighted the fact that the area of mental health can still be highly stigmatised. “While we have seen great developments to date, there needs to be an increased effort made to eradicate any stigma around mental health in the workplace,” he said.

“We need to ask ourselves why employees are more comfortable saying that they are having issues with their physical health as opposed to their mental health – we still see employees asking for their medical certs to say they are suffering from back pain rather than stress, anxiety or depression. We need to cultivate an environment where employees are as comfortable saying they need time to care for their mental health as they are saying they need time to prioritise their physical health.”

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Best podcasts of the week: the life and death of Diego Maradona | Podcasts

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Picks of the week

The Last Days of Maradona
“Everyone – fans and non-fans alike – must have asked themselves: how did Maradona’s life end the way it did?” Thierry Henry narrates this podcast about the football legend’s death at the age of 60 in 2020 – part forensic investigation, part homage to his greatness. In a novel twist – and perhaps a sign of things to come for podcasting – the series is also available in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, via a series of hosts. Hannah J Davies

I’m Not a Monster
Listeners were captivated by the case of Indiana mother Sam Sally and how she ended up at the heart of the Islamic State caliphate. Now, host Josh Baker is back for two new follow-up episodes. He answers listeners’ questions – and heads back to Iraq. Hannah Verdier

Twenty Thousand Hertz
More offbeat sonic discoveries in a miniseries from the long-running audio show. It’s Not TV, it’s HBO, tells the story of the network’s bombastic 80s theme song as well as its iconic – if more understated – “static angel” sound, as heard before everything from The Sopranos to Sex and the City. HJD

Behind the Wand
More than 20 years after Harry Potter’s first film adaptation, Potterheads are still looking to learn something new about the wizarding world. Here, Emma
Watson’s body double Flick Miles takes us behind the scenes with crew members. It’s not as exciting as, say, the upcoming TV reunion, but fans might enjoy the nitty gritty details about how the story came to life on the big screen. Hollie Richardson

Even the Rich: Murder in the House of Gucci
With Lady Gaga and Adam Driver ’s new film throwing the spotlight on to the Gucci dynasty, this podcast tells the story of the family’s humble beginnings. Brooke Siffrinn and Aricia Skidmore-Williams bring their gloriously salacious tone to the tale, from observing Guccio Gucci’s knowledge of luggage to analysing Patrizia Reggiani’s controversial white fur school coat. HV

Sunny delight ... Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Sunny delight … Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, Danny DeVito and Charlie Day on the set of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Chosen by Danielle Stephens

There is always a risk in learning how something you adore is made. That’s why I was slightly apprehensive to listen to The Always Sunny podcast, which launched earlier this month. The premise is simple: each week, the geniuses behind the hit show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia sit down to bring us insider knowledge on how every episode came to be, starting all the way back in 2005.

The worry is that your favourite (terrible) characters are somehow played by an unfunny trio, but Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton allay any fears early on, making one another laugh as much as you might imagine. The scoring is the same as the show, and sound design is nonexistent, so the content needs to carry – which it does. For true fans, it’s a must listen, as we hear how they developed ideas; the stumbling blocks they encountered; and, most interestingly, some of the things they regret with hindsight.

Talking points

  • As podcasts evolve, expect to see even more boundary-blurring with other creative mediums. A case in point: US culture show How Long Gone will release a double-CD album via Jagjaguwar on 17 December, featuring about releases from the record label’s other acts, including Moses Sumney, Dinosaur Jr and Angel Olsen.

  • Why not try: Close to Death | Is This Working? | Sh***hole Country

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