Google’s new interest-based advertising, a step too far?

Privacy advocates have a list of new concerns for Google, now that it has joined Yahoo and others with its newly launched interest-based advertising

Yahoo and other search-engine companies already use “behavioural targeting” or “online behavioural targeting” advertising in order to increase their revenues and advertisers’ chances of success. Googles interest-based advertising, which displays ads based on users’ previous searches and page views, has privacy advocates up in arms over Google collecting massive amounts of user data.

While search engines use this type of technology, the fact that Google is now testing it has raised additional privacy concerns from those that see the search engine giant as already collecting too much personal information on its users. However, some others are defending Google, saying the company already has controls in place to control how personal data is used and collected.

The new Google advertising system, currently in beta, links “categories of interest” to the user’s browser, allowing targeted ads to appear even when the user is looking at a page totally unrelated to the ad’s subject matter. For example, someone who has spent months looking at pages about mini-notebooks will find ads for mini-notebooks appearing even when they’re on a site unrelated to PCs.

Google’s search rival Yahoo has already introduced its own application based on behavioural targeting, called Search Retargeting, which focuses display advertising based on users’ search histories. Search Retargeting, announced on 24 February, was anticipated by analysts as having the potential to draw massive privacy protests, but pushback from privacy advocates so far seems minimal.

For years, search engine companies have struggled to reassure the public that whatever information they collect is not being abused. This has led to much hand wringing about how long they should retain user data.

On 17 December, Yahoo announced that it could cleanse its system of user log data within 90 days. By contrast, Google has publicly stated that its data retention time is nine months.

Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel for Google, argued in a blog posting on 11 March that the privacy policy behind the company’s interest-based ads provided “meaningful transparency and choice,” with the company drawing a line at data-mining potentially sensitive categories for ad revenue.

“To provide greater privacy protections to users, we will not serve interest-based ads based on sensitive interest categories,” she wrote. “For example, we don’t have health status interest categories or interest categories designed for children.”

Users will be able access the individual interest categories associated with their browser via a tool called Ad Preferences Manager and add or delete specific ones.

“Access to the profile is something we’ve been promoting for years, and what we’ve been hearing from companies is that it would be too difficult for consumers; Google has essentially disproved that,” Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist for the Centre for Democracy and Technology, said in an interview. “On the ad profile and ad access front, they’ve moved the ball forward.”