Thursday, March 12, 2009

Google's targeted behavioral advertising plan raises privacy concerns

I posted a detailed analysis of the ongoing conflict between privacy advocates and Google on Monday. Unfortunately, Google's recently released advertising plan only compounds this conflict. Before I get to those details, let me quote myself from Monday:

It's inarguable that Google is rapidly becoming the official technology sponsor of the nation and globe. For the sake of argument, let's just accept this as truth, and assume this company's reach and breadth will only grow. With that in mind, it becomes paramount - and beholden on all those that relish privacy - to keep a close eye on this global leader's attention to this constitutional protection as it relates to their technological innovations.

While it might be an exaggeration to say that Google has been hostile to privacy advocates and their concerns, they've been resistant to say the least. Google has become a concern for advocates for a myriad of reasons, stemming from their lobbying activities to the actual privacy implications of some of their product lines.

Click here to read that post in its entirety.

Now to the latest Google policy that has privacy advocates up in arms: the company's targeted (behavioral) advertising plan. As is often the case, the divergence between what corporations want versus what privacy advocates support stems from the clash between an "opt-in" policy versus an "opt-out". In this case, as with so many others, Google has gone with an "opt-out" policy...and a flawed one at that.

The real story here though is that Google has officially gone into the behavioral targeting business, as demonstrated by their acquisition of one of the world's biggest behavioral targeting ad companies, DoubleClick. Extend behavioral targeting through its online ad network -- the world's largest and most dominant."

Networld reports:

Google's proposal would bring user tracking to the world's largest ad network, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's a disaster," he said. "It's about whether the most dominant Internet media firm should be able to exploit its access to Internet user data for advertising purposes. Google long maintained it would not do this type of advertising. Indeed, they claimed they didn't need to and they went after others who did."


The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), another privacy advocacy group, will call on Google to allow users to opt in to behavioral tracking instead of requiring that they opt out, the current policy, said Jeffrey Chester, CDD's executive director. Chester applauded Google for allowing users to see and change their advertising profiles, but he said that step was not enough.

"It's a very incomplete and flawed safeguard," Chester said in an e-mail. "Missing from what users should know and control are the applications Google uses to develop the ad so it can target and collect data." Users should know if Google is using neuromarketing, viral marketing, rich immersive media and social networks, he said.


However, many Web surfers may find it difficult to find the user preferences, and links on the ads, saying "Ads by Google," don't clearly communicate that clicking on the link will take them to a page with a link for user preferences, Schwartz said. "If it's not opt-in [to targeted advertising], it's got to be opt-out that's extremely easy to use, and this is not opt-out that's extremely easy to use."

Schwartz is also disappointed that the Internet advertising industry has not gotten together to come up with better ways for Web surfers to control their advertising experiences, he said. Google chose a flawed way of honoring opt-out requests -- by putting a cookie on users' machines, similar to a frequently criticized model offered by the Network Advertising Initiative.

Many users and spyware software programs frequently delete cookies, Schwartz noted, although Google has offered a browser plug-in that will prevent the Google opt-out cookie from being deleted. "The cookie opt-out doesn't work, it's a bad idea," he said. "People who care about their privacy enough to opt out also are the same people who delete their cookies."

Click here to read more.

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