Google Subject to Unique Level of Scrutiny

 
 
By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-03-12
 
 
 

Are Google's Behavior-Based Ads a New Privacy Concern?


Google has raised privacy concerns with its newly launched interest-based advertising, which displays ads based on users' previous searches and page views. Also known as "behavioral targeting" or "online behavioral targeting," the method has privacy advocates up in arms over Google collecting massive amounts of user data.

While search engines use this type of technology, the fact that Google is now testing it has raised additional privacy concerns from those that see the search engine giant as already collecting too much personal information on its users. However, some others are defending Google, saying the company already has controls in place to control how personal data is used and collected.

The new Google advertising system, currently in beta, links "categories of interest" to the user's browser, allowing targeted ads to appear even when the user is looking at a page totally unrelated to the ad's subject matter. For example, someone who has spent months looking at pages about mini-notebooks will find ads for mini-notebooks appearing even when they're on a site unrelated to PCs.

Google's search rival Yahoo has already introduced its own application based on behavioral targeting, called Search Retargeting, which focuses display advertising based on users' search histories. Search Retargeting, announced on Feb. 24, was anticipated by analysts as having the potential to draw massive privacy protests, but pushback from privacy advocates so far seems minimal. 

For years, search engine companies have struggled to reassure the public that whatever information they collect is not being abused. This has led to much hand wringing about how long they should retain user data.

On Dec. 17, Yahoo announced that it could cleanse its system of user log data within 90 days. By contrast, Google has publicly stated that its data retention time is nine months.

Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel for Google, argued in a blog posting on March 11 that the privacy policy behind the company's interest-based ads provided "meaningful transparency and choice," with the company drawing a line at data-mining potentially sensitive categories for ad revenue.

"To provide greater privacy protections to users, we will not serve interest-based ads based on sensitive interest categories," she wrote. "For example, we don't have health status interest categories or interest categories designed for children."

Users will be able access the individual interest categories associated with their browser via a tool called Ad Preferences Manager and add or delete specific ones.

"Access to the profile is something we've been promoting for years, and what we've been hearing from companies is that it would be too difficult for consumers; Google has essentially disproved that," Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an interview. "On the ad profile and ad access front, they've moved the ball forward."

Cooper also believes, though, that Google could stand to buttress its privacy protection in other areas - particularly with regard to its cookies. At the moment, Google users have the ability to delete their interest-based advertising cookie for the AdSense partner network, curtailing Google's tracking; but there's a catch.  

"The cookie is only specific to the ads that Google is serving," Cooper said, which still leaves users potentially open to other search engines that utilize cookies for behavioral tracking.

Google Subject to Unique Level of Scrutiny


 

And even though there are plans to label the ads provided by Google on the AdSense partner network and YouTube with information on how those ads are served, Cooper feels those labels could be more intensive.

"They talked about labeling the ads, which is something we've been talking about for a long time, and a link on the ad is a good idea," Cooper adds. "But it's unclear about whether having an ad with a link that says, 'Ad by Google' will be effective for people wanting to see how they can defend their privacy."

Some analysts believe that Google is doing an effective job of being cautious with users' privacy.

Berin Szoka, a fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation and director of the Center for Internet Freedom, suggests that Google's piling-on by some privacy advocates could be somewhat unwarranted, and that the company gives "consumers more granular control over their own privacy preferences by developing better tools."

"Because these services [and their competitors] are all free, Google has to compete in what economists call 'non-price terms'-such as privacy," Szoka wrote in a research report distributed on March 11. "So, Google has a lot to lose by alienating its users and a lot to gain by being seen as a leader in privacy protection."

"It's no accident that Google was a late-comer to the OBA [Online Behavioral Advertising] market, lagging behind Yahoo in particular," Szoka added in the paper. "The most likely reason Google has taken its time in rolling out an OBA product is that Google is subject to a unique level of scrutiny by privacy advocates by virtue of its size. Being the 'big kid on the block,' Google has to be especially careful not to appear to be 'Big Brother.'"

Even if Google has no interest in becoming Big Brother, it still seems focused on becoming truly big.

Despite CEO Eric Schmidt's announcement, at Morgan Stanley Technology Conference in San Francisco on March 3, that Google was "not immune" from "very, very tough" economic conditions, the company seems determined to push into new and untested areas. 

Schmidt also decided to push Google to the forefront of the U.S. renewable energy debate, arguing that his company has a clean energy plan that will cut greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2030.   

On March 11, Google announced the release of Google Voice, an application that not only consolidates all of a user's phones onto a single number, but also transcribes voicemail and makes it available for download.

Google Voice is an updated version of GrandCentral, a service that Google acquired in July 2007.

Earlier in March, Google unveiled new features for its Google Health solution, which now allows users to share their public medical profiles with trusted contacts.

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