Sunday, April 29, 2007

Google-DoubleClick deal under privacy fire

According to Computer Business Review online, three advocacy groups, including EPIC, have made represenations to the Federal Trade Commission to block Google's acquisition of DoubleClick on consumer privacy grounds. See: Google-DoubleClick deal under privacy fire -

CBR also thinks this is a good time for Google to get its privacy ducks in a row:

Our View

While the privacy groups' goals are noble, the arguments in their complaint as they relate to the acquisition itself are rather weak, and we can't help but think that DoubleClick deal is just being seized as an opportunity to pressure Google into adopting better privacy practices.

Google is already big enough, and its privacy practices sufficiently slanted away from the end user, that it could use privacy reform whether it gets to buy DoubleClick or not.

A commitment to "anonymize" search data after two years storage is as good as no commitment at all. The company will still know which IP address and cookie has searched for what terms for the last two years.

What is needed from Google is a method by which users can opt out of having their queries logged, period. DoubleClick has had an opt-out feature for years. Google could simply lay an opt-out cookie on users' machines, and refuse to log any queries associated with that cookie.

This would very likely make the privacy criticisms go away.

The Financial Times has some further info on how Google is proposing to respond to this: / Home UK / UK - Google promises to tackle fears over privacy

Google promises to tackle fears over privacy

By Richard Waters

Published: April 22 2007 22:24 | Last updated: April 22 2007 22:24

Google is developing technology to try to appease critics who complain that its proposed acquisition of DoubleClick will lead to an erosion of online privacy, according to Eric Schmidt, its chief executive.

Speaking in an interview, he also promised changes in the internet company’s policies, saying Google would do whatever was necessary to quell a rising tide of complaints about lack of privacy that began with news of its planned $3.1bn acquisition 10 days ago.

“At the end of the day, people will be happy,” said Mr Schmidt. “That’s because they have to be,” or Google would lose both users and advertisers and its business would be at risk, he said.

Fears have been stoked by the potential for Google to build up a detailed picture of someone’s behaviour by combining its records of web searches with the information from DoubleClick’s “cookies”, the software it places on users’ machines to track which sites they visit.

As the company that “serves”, or delivers, the majority of banner ads seen by web users, DoubleClick’s reach within its market is on a par with that of Google in the search business.

Mr Schmidt said Google was working on a way of handling “cookies” that would reduce concerns about the practice. The technology has long been controversial, because many internet users do not realise their surfing habits are tracked. Google has bowed to those concerns by not using cookies, though it has said it would change its policy after the DoubleClick acquisition.

“We have technology in that area that can make it much better,” Mr Schmidt said, though he refused to give details of the technique ahead of the company’s discussions with regulators.

Besides privacy groups, the DoubleClick deal has also stirred unease among advertisers and other online media companies over the competitive advantage Google would gain from the vast amount of information it would have about their businesses.

Mr Schmidt last week said that Google would consider arrangements to deal with those fears, such as keeping apart data about advertisers and media owners contained in Google and DoubleClick’s systems.

While stoking fears about loss of privacy, greater use of personal data collected online could have benefits, from enhancing the personalisation of services to helping fight terrorism, the Google chief executive said.

“These are the conflicts of our age,” he added. “We’re trying to find the right balance.”

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