Don’t be evil?

Image by Kaldari - licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License
Image by Kaldari

Google, the company with the motto “Don’t be evil,” has apparently flip-flopped its view on behavioral advertising. Just last year Google said it had no plans to engage in behavioral advertising and admonished companies that did. Now Google has announced a new service it calls “Internet-based” advertising. Internet-based avoids the controversial term behavioral, but is none the less the same. Google will use the information it gathers about Google users in order to present targeted ads on all Google owned services as well as on the millions of Web sites that use Google’s AdSense.

Google’s move to behavioral advertising is considered an invasion of privacy by some. It illustrates how Google is drawing extensive information about users from across Web sites to create detailed consumer profiles. This is the same type of activity that landed the Web advertising company, DoubleClick, in hot water in 2002. DoubleClick ended up paying $1.8 million to settle a law suite charging the company with invasion of privacy. Besides the hefty fine, DoubleClick had to agree to stop collecting private information on users across Web sites on which DoubleClick advertised. Google purchased DoubleClick in 2007. Now we know why.

Google is fighting off criticism of its targeted advertising by citing the fact that users are provided with a method for opting out of the program. Users can also edit their profiles to control what kinds of ads are served to them.

Privacy groups are up in arms about Google’s decision. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) is calling on Google to change the service to “opt in” rather than “opt out” in order to insure that users involved are well informed. The Electronic Privacy Information Center says that Google’s new direction is a “privacy disaster” and is calling on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to stop Google.

Google isn’t the only company collecting tons of user data in hopes of profiting from it. Cell phone companies have also begun selling location information and activity information gathered from the handsets of their subscribers. This information is valuable for analyzing trends both on an individual level and on a community level. Software available from citysense.com uses the location of cell phones in San Francisco to show population densities at any given moment around the city. Using the software you could find the most popular club, or the quietest restaurant. Businesses and governments use similar software to track individual’s around the city in order to build user profiles, and track social trends.

User information from social networks is also being harvested for marketing purposes. Twitter is seen by advertisers as a gold mine of up-to-the-second information that can be used to measure the pulse of public sentiment. With millions of users answering the question “What are you doing” several times a day, Twitter is the perfect tool for gaining insight on social and cultural trends.

Google’s move to behavioral marketing has prompted a reaction from congress. Representative Rick Boucher and two other congressmen are working to revive portions of the Consumer Privacy Protection of Act, an effort to protect consumer privacy online that was defeated in 2002. The Bill requires online companies to notify consumers when information is being collected about their online activities. It also allows consumers to opt-out once notified.

Two trends are likely to make online consumer privacy a headline topic in coming months. First is the growing trend of consumers to lead transparent online lifestyles, providing personal information about themselves through social networks, and spending increasing amounts of time online through mobile wireless connections. Second, is a troubled economy pressuring companies to test the limits of public and governmental tolerance, in order to profit from the data collected from online activity. Consumers should be aware that all of their online activities are being monitored, analyzed, stored, and sold by those that provide Internet services and content. Only government regulation and public sentiment will keep that information from being widely distributed and monetized.

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