Archive for March, 2009

Strong Opinions About Google’s Behavioral Targeting

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Seth Finkelstein and Daniel Brandt both warn against Google’s recent move towards further profiling of Internet end-users.

Daniel Brandt makes some interesting points about the data processing that is going on, and in particular the possibility of integration of DoubleClick and AdSense data collection. Seth Finkelstein makes a great point about the cleverness of Google’s pr about its ‘surveillance as a service‘:

If Google can convince people its surveillance is merely a warm and fuzzy way of helping you shop, while ISPs’ surveillance is akin to warrantless wiretapping, that gives Google an enormous advantage in collecting information to sell to advertisers

Wikia Search Comes to an End

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

News.com reports that Wales is giving up on the Wikia search engine project, which was supposed to build a search engine based on wiki principles, but never really managed to implement those principles for an environment as dynamic as web search. Luckily there are a number of open search projects that are alive and experimenting with ways to provide search in a more open and transparent way. See for instance YaCy.

Caterpillar Never Enough

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Google is celebrating the first day of Spring with us with a logo designed by Eric Carle, on top of which the very hungry caterpillar is making a walk.

In Dutch, the translation was Rupsje Nooitgenoeg, meaning Caterpillar Never Enough. The association with Google becomes rather obvious then. Will Google finally end up the same way as the very hungry caterpillar?

Google Rolls Out Behavorial Targeting

Thursday, March 19th, 2009

Last week, Google announced it will start to offer what it calls interest-based advertising through its network of AdSense partners and on YouTube. With the move, Google taps further into its unequaled database of Web behavioral data by end-users, aiming to increase the economic value of the advertisement space for its AdSense partners, and using the same to monetize traffic on YouTube. The use of the database for YouTube is maybe least remarkable considering Google’s problems to make money on the leading global video platform. Some of the features of the program for end-users are remarkable and positive from the end-user’s perspective but it is important to acknowledge their limitations.

Relation with acquisition of DoubleClick

The move is partly a result of Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, one of the biggest players in the field of online advertising that used behavioral targeting for many years. The new service seems to use some of DoubleClicks technology, including the cookie that is used to track end-user behavior. Google has been less clear about the data collection architecture. Does the use of one cookie for tracking imply that the underlying database of click-streams on the Google AdSense network and on DoubleClick customers have been integrated or are ready to be integrated?

Users in control

Google’s interest-based advertising service has been praised because it offers end-users access and control over their profiles and offers an opt-out. True, this is a remarkable move, as no competitor in behavioral targeting was doing this yet. Most competitors do not place as much emphasis on their relation with end-users as Google does. By putting users in control, Google strikes a new balance between the interests of advertisers and content producers on the one hand, and end-users on the other hand. It will be interesting to see if DoubleClick will make a similar move towards end-users.

Still, I am skeptical how substantial these controls really are. First, end-users only get access to the tip of the iceberg of the technological and behavioral data-processing architecture. Consider this quote from Search Engine Land about a Q&A with Google:

[C]an an advertiser pass along a specific ad to a specific user? For example, can I show an ad for the Sony HDR-XR200V if this user added the Sony HDR-XR200V to their shopping cart on my site but did not check out? Bender said yes, but ultimately it is up to the advertiser how specific they want to get with those ads.

That means that advertisers have more control over targeting than end-users do. I would be able to access and control my interest categories, such as the category “Video Players & Recorders”. Advertisers and e-commerce sites that use the program can reach me through much more granular controls facilitated by Google. To some extent, the control and transparency is merely a façade, behind which a (for the end-user) opaque sophisticated data processing architecture is doing the real work.

Opting out – of what?

Of course, there is the option of opting out through a special cookie and Google has designed (with the help of EFF) a browser plug-in to ensure that opt-outs are persistent for end-users that regularly delete their cookies. An opt-in model is not considered to be economically feasible. I would not be surprised if research would show that expected opt-out numbers would be around the same level as expected opt-in. The large majority of end-users will simply not notice anything of the targeting based on their browsing. You can make as many videos as you want, there is a limit to the number of people you will be able to reach if you do not force them to listen before making them subject to certain treatment.

Apart from the many shades of gray between an opt-in and an opt-out, we should ask ourselves what the offered opt-out really means. Does it mean that Google stops to target ads based on a profile of the interests of end-users, which is derived from the navigational history of end-users? Yes, it does. Does it mean that Google will stop to collect those same click streams? No, I do not think so. These click streams will still end-up in Google’s database, (without a unique cookie id). Google will still show ads, and it will still need logs for its AdSense accounting, click fraud prevention, service management and research. In addition, it’s hard to imagine opting out of Google’s immense network of services in way that does not allow these logs to be correlated with individual end-users. In other words, the opt-out only touches a tip of the iceberg of data processing that is taking place.

Hacker Gains Control over Info Screens at Amsterdam Central Station

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

UPDATE. The Dutch Railways reports this was not a hack but a software error.

Webwereld reports (in Dutch) that the information screens at Amsterdam Central Station have been hacked and show (for certain intervals) the message ‘Watchdog’ since last Thursday. I have not seen it yet. I hope there will be some more pictures online in the coming days.

ICSR Report on Online Radicalisation

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) released an interesting policy report ‘Countering Online Radicalisation‘. The report critically examines negative measures such as filtering hiding and removal of material, addresses freedom of expression concerns and proposes a number of new positive measures to make the Internet less attractive as a platform for extremism and radicalisation.

Interestingly, the section in the report on negative measures contains a subsection on the strategy of hiding content on the Internet through the removal of material from search engines and the deployment of SEO strategies:

In general, the various tools that have been deployed by governments in recent years can be grouped into three categories: removing content from the web; restricting users’ access and controlling the exchange of information (filtering); and manipulating search engine results, so that undesirable content becomes more difficult to find (hiding).

The report forgets to mention the highly relevant co-regulatory frameworks in Germany and France that do precisely that. It does refer to China’s targeting of search engines and mentions that:

Though technically feasible, it is highly unlikely that Western governments would consider pursuing this course of action.

As governments and third parties are increasingly using the strategy of hiding content through the targeting of search engines, also in the Western world, it is unfortunate that the researchers did not develop their concerns in more detail. The deployment of SEO by governments to reduce the prominence of online extremist material is problematic and rather hypothetical in my opinion.

The report is less than enthusiastic about the use of any of these strategies, noting that removal of content amounts to fighting the symptoms and not the cause, negative externalities of negative measures, the technical imperfection of filtering, freedom of expression concerns and political controversy within certain communities. It does recommend that law enforcement strategically targets illegal material for removal, while focusing on the perpetrators and not the material.

Above all, the report proposes a number of interesting positive measures that could help to make the Internet less attractive for extremists, namely empowering the online communities, reducing the appeal by strengthening media literacy and promoting positive messages. These proposals are sympathetic, but I feel ambivalent about the proposal to strengthen the role of end-users to regulate content. One the one hand, user empowerment is what the Internet and many successful online services are about. On the other hand, community empowerment might lead to the over-empowerment of ultra-sensitive users that are not part of the community but merely active to restrict others in their online communications. Most user-driven sites are far from homogeneous and that is a good thing. Promoting user-empowerment should go hand in hand with promoting tolerance.

GikII Comes to Amsterdam! (hosted by IVIR)

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Great news! The fourth installment of GikII will take place on 17-18 September 2009 in Amsterdam, hosted by the Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam, in partnership with Creative Commons Netherlands. ” The detailed announcement and a call for papers should follow in about a month.

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