March 26, 2009

My _Guardian_ column on Google's "interest-based advertising"

Google's surveillance is taking us further down the road to hell

Google recently took another step along the path of surveillance as a service, launching what it called "interest-based advertising", and which everyone else calls "behavioural targeting".

I had suggested a title of "Google's interest-based advertising and surveillance as a service", as I was aimed for the keywords "interest-based advertising", and I wanted to emphasize the phrase "surveillance as a service" (that plays off "software as a service"). But the title they used is fine by me. It's definitely more attention-grabbing.

Althought there's certainly a lot of punditry on the topic, I hope I managed to say something that wasn't a rehash of the same points, by concentrating on some of the politics and public-relations issues. I particularly like my line about Google's tech gimmicks meaning that "Too many supposed watchdogs end up distracted by the equivalent of a chew toy."

And I've already seen that "chew toy" argument being made. I look forward to many, many, iterations over this, as Google sends out the flacks and apologists to preach how its massive monitoring network is no trouble at all, compared to the horrible ISP deep-packet-inspection (i.e. "Look over there - a monster!").

[Pre-emptive note: From checking comments elsewhere, please don't "explain" to me how according to your elaborate ideological theory of moral responsibility, Google is a saint while ISPs are devils. I've heard it. In fact, I will hear it from experts who spend their whole professional lives in the service of trying to make people believe corporate agendas are the essence of being human, and they're good at what they do. I'm a geek. I know all about the differences between cookie-based tracking and packet analysis. The whole point of my column is arguing that sort of thinking is the wrong way to approach these issues, because it's very flawed in practice.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google , press | on March 26, 2009 08:09 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Why are your precise titles turned into hype and clichees?

Posted by: Philipp Lenssen at March 26, 2009 08:33 AM

Well, it is a column for a newspaper, so it has to appeal to a fairly broad even if intellectual audience.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 26, 2009 08:38 AM

But they are still expected to read the article itself, no? If so, the amended title offers less of a bridge to it. And what's the point of "getting the title easy" if it's a *wrong* meaning you'll get? There would have been ways to trim down your original title and still keep the intention.

Posted by: Philipp Lenssen at March 26, 2009 09:21 AM

"Expected" might not be correct word. "Induced" or "Attracted" or "Enticed" are more the goal. I try not to be a diva about the editing, figuring they know their business better than I do. I'm much more concerned if they get things wrong, rather than merely doing something different from what I would do.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 26, 2009 09:28 AM

Nice article - like you, I am amazed at how good Google is at dressing in lamb's clothing.

Posted by: alan p at March 26, 2009 02:25 PM

Stuff below not directly related

Seen elsewhere :-)
"Operators of online social networks are increasingly sharing potentially sensitive information about users and their relationships with advertisers, application developers, and data-mining researchers. Privacy is typically protected by anonymization, i.e., removing names, addresses, etc.

We present a framework for analyzing privacy and anonymity in social networks and develop a new re-identification algorithm targeting anonymized social-network graphs. To demonstrate its effectiveness on real-world networks, we show that a third of the users who can be verified to have accounts on both Twitter, a popular microblogging service, and Flickr, an online photo-sharing site, can be re-identified in the anonymous Twitter graph with only a 12% error rate. "

Upshot "anonymized social-network graphs. " do not necessarily provide any protection against attack. Even someone having the "cleansed" data is enough to give your game away.

And some people are just borderline evil
"Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail"

Posted by: tqft at March 26, 2009 11:19 PM

Yes, your "chew toy" line was magnificent, but as I've pointed out, it's not just the "AdSense network," although Google is spinning it as such. In fact, it's the AdSense network plus the old DoubleClick network together, which makes the problem twice as big as most watchdogs suspect.

See for the evidence.

By the way, there used to be AdSense ads on your blog. I'm happy to see that they're gone now, and congratulations on cancelling your account if that's what you did.

Posted by: Daniel Brandt at March 27, 2009 11:35 AM

I noticed that Google is now censoring the results for your namesake Norman Finkelstein now..

Is this the first instance of US Google censoring for political reasons? I guess they've had plenty of practice in China.

Posted by: Shadrac at April 11, 2009 06:39 AM