Wednesday 11 March 2009

Google calling - again!

And while we're on the subject of Google, the BBC reported today that Google has become the latest provider to serve up behaviour-based advertising. Under its Adsense program, Google will serve ads based on the content of the sites users view. It will associate their browsers with certain "interest categories" based on behavioural data collected through a cookie it places in users' browsers. Cookies will be placed in the browsers of all Google and You Tube users from today unless the user opts-out. Advertisers will be able to start serving ads using the new system from April.

The move follows the publication of guidelines on behavioural advertising by the Internet Advertising Bureau which are supposed to ensure that such advertising does not breach individuals' right to privacy (see last week's report by Out-Law). Google as well as Microsoft Advertising, Yahoo! SARL and Phorm have all committed to following them. However, the guidelines have already been criticised by the good people at the Open Rights Group for the opt-out approach and the cookie technology.

"Any ‘opt out’ would be stored by a cookie. So each time a user deletes their cookies, or changes browser or machine, they have to opt out. This makes opting out a repeated procedure, such that which would make all but the most stubborn user simply give their consent. This is not how consent should work, and a system that ‘pesters’ users into opting in is in our view an illegitimate attempt to substitute acquiescence for consent, whereas nothing but consent is acceptable."

There have been lots of discussions about whether most users would prefer targeted advertising to the current "random" kind. The prospect of making - as Lilian Edwards called it at last year's GikIII conference - "every ad a wanted ad" seems tempting, but at what cost? Matron is fairly relaxed about being served with relevant advertising when using the internet. But she baulks at the mass of data that Google will collect in the process, the other purposes for which that data may be used and the people who might want to use it. If the data security breaches of the last two years have taught us anything, it is that the only way to prevent the abuse of large databases is to prevent those databases from being established in the first place.

On that note, this is how you opt-out of the Google Adsense cookie.

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