Monday, July 23, 2007

Save Our Privacy

According to the Washington Post this morning, all the major search engines are tightening their privacy policies in the face of mounting concern about the vast amounts of personal data they collect and store.

I don't like the idea of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! or any other organization collecting, storing and analyzing data about my web searches and web surfing. They all say they do it "to improve the quality of their search services." As if that is sufficient reason for them to collect and analyze mountains upon mountains of data. Quality assurance/improvement is typically done using statistical analyses of relatively small, random samples.

We all have to use search engines to find information on the web. Individually, we are powerless to prevent the collection and storage of all that data about each of us.

What can you and I do about it? The only compelling reason for these companies to collect, analyze and store these vast amounts of data is to help them sell advertising and help their advertisers sell products. Take away the ad revenue, and they have no incentive to collect all that data. Take away the ad revenue, and they will not be able to afford to collect and store the data.

In the Firefox browser, there is a free extension that you can install that blocks most of the advertising on web pages served by Google, et al. Here's how you get the extension: in Firefox, select Tools/Add-Ons/Get Extensions/Adblock Plus to download and install the extension. Once you do, you will no longer see most of the ads currently running on the web.

As more and more of us do this, the money will go out of web advertising, and these companies will no longer have the incentive to collect all that data. Just the prospect of this happening is probably enough to get the search engines to stop amassing these mountains of data.

So, if you too are concerned about the activities of the search engines, you can do your part to stop them by using Firefox and Adblock Plus. Do it today.


Google assures us that it does not "profile" users for marketing purposes. However, Microsoft and Yahoo! both use the information they collect to profile users and "behaviorally target" advertisements to them. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Microsoft says that in testing in the U.S., behavioral targeting increased clicks on ads by as much as 76 percent."

Microsoft says that users will soon be able to opt-out of demographic ad targeting if they choose. Good luck finding out when and where to sign up for that, and does that cover behavioral ad targeting, too?

Governments around the world will be itching to see this information, and these companies will supply it to them. For example, last year, Yahoo gave a user's emails to the Chinese government, and those emails were used to jail a Chinese dissident. Google, for its part says, "Companies like Google are trying to be responsible corporate citizens," in complying with lawful (in each country) requests for data.

Maybe our elected officials will get involved and require adequate protections. For instance, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that addresses consumer protection, says about Google's proposed acquisition of DoubleClick, "Concerns have focused not only on the implications for competition -- in online advertising and other possibly affected markets -- but also on the potentially enormous impact on consumer privacy." On the other hand, maybe Congress will renew the Patriot Act.

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