Get full access to one story every week, and to summaries of all other stories. Just create a free account

What the FLoC! 🔐

Privacy wars are all the rage. And Google dumping third-party cookies for a new version of cohort-based tracking is drawing some flak.

This is edition 265 of Beyond The First Order, a premium daily newsletter that demystifies the hidden models, incentives and consequences of the most significant events across India and Southeast Asia

A 🔒 paid newsletter that demystifies the hidden models, incentives and consequences of the most significant events across India and Southeast Asia. Someone sent you this? Subscribe to BFO

Good morning,

Yesterday, we hit a technical glitch and our morning email for Beyond the First Order didn’t land in inboxes at the usual time. We’re really sorry about that.

In this edition, we look at Google’s new version of cohort-based tracking. At first glance, it seems like a move towards a better privacy structure. But, the fear is that grouping people together can lead to worse outcomes or targeting of specific sets of people.

Then, we turn our attention back to the pandemic and remdesivir. A drug whose fortunes rose when Covid struck last year, then waned. And is rising again. But wild pricing and a shortage are hurting India.

And as mini-lockdowns emerge in India, migrants are once again heading back to their villages. But this bout of reverse migration can have lasting effects.

Consumers are FLoC-ing to privacy-conscious apps

Two months ago—for the first time ever—WhatsApp messenger put out a front-page advertisement in major Indian newspapers, each read by millions. “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” the ad claimed, detailing what had changed in its recent privacy policy update. In over a week, it escalated into a business crisis as hordes of Indian users joined more privacy-conscious rival messenger apps.

According to Business Insider’s survey, Telegram gained 47% of WhatsApp users because of its extra security offerings. And more than 45% of users were apprehensive about WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, based on media reports.

The uproar led to WhatsApp’s postponing the option to accept its privacy policy until May 2021. 

The latest battle in today’s privacy wars is taking place on new ground—instead of messenger apps, the technology in contention is Search.

Last week, DuckDuckGo—“an internet search engine that emphasizes searchers’ privacy and avoids the filter bubble of personalized search results”—wrote a blog post telling users to stop using Google Chrome. It warns that users have automatically entered Chrome’s new tracking method called Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC), and offers an extension to block it. 

With FLoC, Google replaces the third-party cookie that tracked users as they browsed the web so as to profile them for targeted ads. Google is positioning FLoC as a more privacy-friendly method to target audiences, releasing a comic to explain why. 

Instead of planting cookies on the users’ devices, which send personal data to centralised servers so personalisation algorithms can run on them, FLoC allows the algorithms to run on the user’s device itself. It then assigns users to groups with similar interests.

By not needing data to leave users’ devices, and by mining it at the group-level instead of the user-level, Google claims to effectively decentralise personalisation and improve privacy. It also promises at least 95% of the conversions per dollar spent when compared to cookie-based advertising.

FLoC is supposed to be Google’s major first step in its vision for a privacy-first web and future. “People want assurances that their identity and information are safe as they browse the web … FLoC proposes a new way for businesses to reach people with relevant content and ads,” Google explains in its blog posts. Acknowledging an erosion of trust, it cites research that 72% of people feel that what they do online is being tracked by advertisers and tech companies and that 81% believe that risks from data collection outweigh its benefits.

Today, consumers’ increasing privacy-consciousness presents a complication for technologies—called the Personalisation-Privacy paradox. Widely-used personalised services—such as Spotify and Netflix recommendation engines or Google’s search engine and targeted ad systems—deliver personalisation by collecting vast amounts of personal user data. But both personalisation and privacy are desirable to consumers, presenting a trade-off and the difficult question of what level of privacy-cum-personalisation to optimise for.

This is the big question that different groups of society are grappling with today, including:

  • Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and DuckDuckGo, who create technologies for consumers
  • Advertisers—other businesses—who pay tech companies to advertise to their users
  • Regulators and researchers, who shape policy in this industry. And, finally,
  • Consumers like you and me who actually use personalised internet technologies, like Google Search, and are shown ads by tech companies

The fact that third-party cookies send personal data from people’s devices to companies’ servers—where users would have no control over them—caused them to be blocked by Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browsers as far back as 2013. 

Chrome is the last major browser—and the biggest—to phase them out. But it is also the first to propose a new vision for technology that both achieves personalisation and controls for user privacy. According to research on the models of privacy-preserving APIs, federated learning represents a seismic jump in the way consumer internet technologies are designed.

Along with DuckDuckGo, data ethics researchers, privacy advocates, lawmakers, and other businesses have slammed Google’s FLoC, arguing that it is bad for user privacy. By grouping people based on browsing interest, cohort-based targeting can enable deliberate harm or targeting of specific sets of people, and also exacerbate the problems inherent to algorithmic categorisations of humans. 

It can make existing tracking methods more powerful; adtech firms or hackers can use fingerprinting techniques, where individual pieces of data about someone’s device are used to decipher their identity. Somebody’s FLoC ID then becomes a powerful data point, helping to distinguish their browser from only a few thousand others instead of a few hundred million.

But Google has repeatedly clarified that multiple teams are working to ensure that cohorts are not classified by any sensitive issues—such as race, sexuality, or medical history—by extensively testing and reconfiguring the algorithms.

As for advertisers—the other online businesses who buy ads on Google and pay it for every click and conversion—they tend to be marketers, like myself, forced to read many articles on the implication of such developments on their professions. The inability to track users across websites is expected to cause a resurgence in older strategies for online businesses, including emphasis on first-party data and contextual targeting, which is advertising based on what someone is browsing rather than past behaviour.

Google is aware of these implications for its ad business, which made up for 80% of its parent Alphabet’s revenues as of 2019. But it believes that not conforming to consumers’ higher standards for privacy will be anti-competitive.  

Multiple data breaches and the rising demand for privacy has led governments to adopt new regulations. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—implemented in May 2018 to give consumers more control over their data—prevents Google’s FLoC from being tested in Europe. But other regions, including India and the US, are seeing “origin trials” of the new technology.

FLoC is currently deployed to 0.5% of Chrome users, who have been enrolled automatically, without consent or even notice. The team wants to increase this sample to 5%, at which point tens of millions of users will become part of the test. In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up AmIFloCed?, a tool for users to find out if their browser is part of Google’s trials.

While research shows that overall knowledge of privacy concerns are on the rise, it also indicates that consumers don’t know how to protect themselves. In the rapidly evolving privacy landscape, an individual has to wrestle with complex cognitive biases to even navigate the subject. People’s uncertainty about what data sharing online really involves, its trade-offs with performance and control over data, and the differences in privacy levels across the web—all of this make processing information about privacy that much harder. There is even a sub-paradox within the Personalisation-Privacy question, called the Privacy Paradox, which highlights the discrepancies between people’s reported attitudes to privacy and their actual behaviours.

On the day of WhatsApp’s front-page ads, amidst the flurry of notifications I got every time a contact joined Telegram or Signal (both of which run on donations and are free to use), a friend SMS’ed me for the first time in ages. She wrote, “In protest against Facebook’s growing ecosystem, I have decided to step away from all its social media. One doesn’t know the whole truth, but protection of privacy is available on less capitalistic alternatives.”

Politicking over remdesivir

For the past two weeks, not a day has passed by without friends or family desperately reaching out, trying to find ways to procure remdesivir, an antiviral drug given through injections to patients hospitalised due to Covid-19. 

The second wave hit India unawares and the acute shortage of the drug started stinging patients. 

The government told the court that with the fall in demand following the drop in Covid-19 cases, the seven manufacturers had scaled down production “to about 5-10%, which affected the supply chain of the said product”. The manufacturers had said they needed at least 25 raw materials in production which might take time followed by a cycle period of 20 to 25 days “from production to transportation of the product”, it said.

Despite there not being solid evidence that remdesivir actually helps save lives, it is the only antiviral drug of choice doctors are placing their bets on at the moment. Even as the pandemic raged on since March 2020, remdesivir emerged as an option only in July. It made dashing sales till October-November before cases receded and the demand dropped. We wrote about the mad rush for Covid-related drugs in The Ken in January this year.

And while the drug is in short supply, political parties are looking out for brownie points by fanning the fires. Take for instance, India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In the western state of Gujarat, the BJP office in the city of Surat has been distributing free remdesivir injections since last week. And BJP’s state party chief CR Paatil had promised to dole out 5,000 doses sourced from pharma manufacturer Zydus Cadila. 

Source: Twitter

Paatil’s claims raised eyebrows, what with a political party hoarding crucial anti-covid drugs. Especially a drug that Vinod Paul, member of think-tank Niti Aayog, warned was only to be prescribed in hospital settings and procured by hospital authorities directly. But the situation on the ground is different. Patients are thronging pharmacy stores to buy the drug and the price at which each vial of it is sold varies wildly between seven manufacturers. 

Except for Zydus Cadila which sells remdesivir at Rs 899 (US$12) per vial (down from Rs 2,800 (US$40) per vial; a price it was sold at earlier this year), none of the other manufacturers have reduced costs. This includes Hetero and Dr Reddy’s which sell it for Rs 5,400 (US$72) per vial or Jubiliant Life Sciences and Mylan which sell it at close to Rs 4,800 (US$65) per vial or even Cipla and Sun Pharma which sell it at Rs 4,000 (US$53) per vial. 

By September 2020, remdesivir became the mainstay for patients with severe Covid after having found its way into the government’s treatment guidelines, while the demand for other drugs waned. Over the past year, it has made a killing in sales; at Rs 468.73 crore (US$63 million), it stands highest amongst major Covid drugs of choice. 

By the end of this week, all players have promised to the government to bring down the cost to Rs 3,500 (US$46.73) per vial. India stopped exporting remdesivir earlier this week, but the politicking and the corporatisation is not serving the patients that might need it the most. 

A second migrant exodus, but this comes with a difference

The number of India’s daily Covid-19 cases are climbing. A complete nationwide lockdown like last year seems to be out of the equation since the damage it wrought on the economy was clear for everyone to see—loss of jobs and incomes, and a plummeting GDP. However, localised lockdowns are being implemented. And that’s leading to a second exodus of migrants back to their villages. 

Just that this time, the images of struggling children and women that were a feature of the first exodus have been replaced by visuals of mostly single and male migrants.

In February this year, Md Shabbir Ansari travelled with his family back home to Giridih, Jharkhand, and after dropping them, returned to Delhi to look for work. Fired from his job repairing cars in Ghaziabad, Ansari could no longer afford the rent for his family of six at Karkardooma in Delhi.

After the first bout of reverse migration, many families were left behind in the hinterlands, even as the male family members departed back to the city. And with male migrants heading back to villages again, it’s a section of the womenfolk who will, once more, face stress

For example, the women who traditionally do paddy transplantation in eastern India could be replaced by more able-bodied men at the same or lower wages. This could severely impact woman-headed households and other vulnerable segments of the local population.

And that could lead women into an even bigger debt-trap as they struggle to make ends meet. 

But, what if the male members aren’t scarred by the experience of losing jobs and scrambling back to their hometowns twice within a year, and they decide to go back to the cities again in the hope of building a better life? If the first lockdown was a lesson, it’s unlikely that the families are going to accompany them. And that could lead to another problem. One with far-reaching consequences. 

Benoy Peter, Executive Director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, expects a rise in gender disparity and disruption of education. “We are especially seeing this in case of long-distance travel… When only one person returns to work and the family stays back, this has huge implications on gender disparity and continuation of education.”

Globally, studies have already shown the adverse impact on children when they get left behind.

A study of 400 children in 10 rural communities in China who did not live with their parents found that they experienced increased stress and workload, which often led to depression. Left-behind girls were particularly vulnerable, since they faced greater psychological burden as a result of heavier workloads. In Mexico, parental migration had a negative effect on the school attendance of 16- to 18-year-old girls, who had to take on more household chores.

How India’s policymakers deal with changing migration patterns and its impact on women’s welfare and children’s education could spell out the future of India’s hinterlands.

Our subscribers share their out-of-office emails

On Monday, we wrote about the return of unapologetic out-of-office emails and asked if you’d used any in the past year. Here are a couple of quirky ones from our subscribers.

From Iresh:

Subject: Happy New Year! I'm enjoying it, you should too 🙂

Body: Hi,

I'm on leave.

For retail related matters contact - xxx

I'll be sure to get in touch once I'm back. I will not be available for a telecall during this time.

If it's super urgent and you feel compelled to disturb me on holiday,
please text / whatsapp.

Happy New Year!

From Guru:

I have a tail and a head but no body. What am I?

If you haven't figured out the answer, wait until 3rd Jan when I'm back from vacation or you can bother Sam.


That’s a wrap for today.

Don’t forget to write in with your thoughts and observations on how this pandemic is reshaping businesses, societies, and economies. We will be back on Monday.

Stay safe,
[email protected]

Subscribe to read this story

The Ken is the only business subscription you need. Questions?



  • 5 original and reported longform business stories every week
  • Access to ONLY India edition
  • Close to 250 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories
  • Pick up to 5 premium subscriber newsletters
  • 4 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to ONLY Southeast Asia edition
  • Close to 200 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to all paywalled stories since March 2020
  • Pick up to 5 premium subscriber newsletters

Rs. 2,750 /year

$ 120 /year

India Edition
Subscribe Subscribe
Most Asked For


  • 8 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to both India and Southeast Asia editions
  • Close to 400 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories across India and Southeast Asia
  • Unlimited access to all premium subscriber newsletters
  • Visual Stories

Rs. 4,200 /year



  • 8 original and reported longform business stories each week
  • Access to both India and Southeast Asia editions
  • Close to 400 exclusive stories every year
  • Full access to over 5 years of paywalled stories across India and Southeast Asia
  • Unlimited access to all premium subscriber newsletters
  • Visual Stories
  • Bonus annual gift subscription
  • Priority access to all new products and features

Rs. 8,474 /year



What kind of subscription plans do you offer?

We have three types of subscriptions
- Premium which gives you access to either the India or the Southeast Asia edition.
- Borderless which gives you complete access to The Ken across both editions
- Echelon which gives you complete access to The Ken across both editions along with a bonus gift subscription

What do I get if I subscribe?

The Premium edition gives you access to stories in that edition along with any five subscriber-only newsletters of your choice.

The Borderless and Echelon subscription gives you complete access to The Ken across editions and unlimited access to as many newsletters as you like.

What topics do you usually write about?

We publish sharp, original and reported stories on technology, business and healthcare. Our stories are forward-looking, analytical and directional — supported by data, visualisations and infographics. We use language and narrative that is accessible to even lay readers. And we optimise for quality over quantity, every single time.

Our specialised subscriber-only newsletters are written by our expert, award-winning journalists and cover a range of topics across finance, retail, clean energy, cryptocurrency, ed-tech and many more.

How many newsletters do you have?

We are constantly adding specialised subscriber-only newsletters all the time. All of these are written by our team of award-winning journalists on a specialised topic.

You can see the list of newsletters that we publish over here.

Does a Premium subscription to your Indian edition get me access to the Southeast Asia edition? Or vice-versa?

Afraid not. Each edition is separate with its own subscription plan. The India edition publishes stories focused on India. The Southeast Asia edition is focused on Southeast Asia. We may occasionally cross-publish stories from one edition to the other.

We recommend the Borderless or the Echelon Plan which will give you access to stories across both editions.

Do you have a mobile app?

Yes! We have a top-rated mobile app on both iOS and Android which allows you to read on-the-go and has some amazing features like the ability to bookmark stories, save on your device, dark mode, and much more. It’s really the best way to read The Ken.

Is there a free trial?

You can sign up for a free account to experience The Ken and understand our products better. We’ll send you some free stories and newsletters occasionally, and you can access our archive of previously published free stories. You can stay on the free account as long as you’d like.

The vast majority of our stories, articles and newsletters can be accessed only by a paid subscription.

Do you offer any discounts?

Sorry, no. Our journalism is funded completely by our subscribers. We believe that quality journalism comes at a price, and readers trust and pay us so that we can remain independent.

Do you offer refunds?

No. We allow you to sample our journalism for free before signing up, and after you do, we stand by its quality. But we do not offer refunds.

I am facing some trouble purchasing a subscription. What can I do?

Just write to us at [email protected] with details. We’ll help you out.

I have a few more questions. How can I reach out to you?

Sure. Just email us at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.