Friday, April 20, 2007

Google, DoubleClick and New Privacy Issues

On April 13th, Google announced it would acquire DoubleClick Inc. for $3.1 billion. DoubleClick is a developer and provider of digital marketing services.

There was an article in the Los Angeles Times four days later saying, "Google Inc.'s purchase of DoubleClick Inc. would create the world's single largest repository of details about people's behavior online, an unnerving prospect for some privacy experts."

Google's associate general counsel admitted that the integration of the two companies' "non-personally identifiable data" was exactly why the company wanted to purchase DoubleClick.

The story explained that "Google dominates the market for selling text ads that appear next to search results, while DoubleClick has the largest independent system for placing banner ads." DoubleClick is also the largest profiler of users' Internet habits. Its customer base includes Microsoft, General Motors, Coca-Cola and Motorola.

Google has already admitted that it keeps all search results.

DoubleClick uses cookies to track users as they travel from website to website and records what advertisements users view and select while browsing. The information is employed to make certain that the same person doesn't see the same ad again and again while surfing the web. DoubleClick keeps the user's surfing history for two years.

Beginning in 2000, DoubleClick faced multiple lawsuits around the country alleging privacy violations. According to C/Net News in January, 2000, a "California woman filed a suit . . . against DoubleClick, accusing the Web advertising firm of unlawfully obtaining and selling consumers' private information."

An article in InformationWeek in August, 2002 said:

The agreement struck between DoubleClick and 10 states requires the company to explain on Web sites how it tracks and profiles Web surfers' usage data. DoubleClick leaves "cookie" files on computers that visit a Web site using its services. That lets DoubleClick track users' Web travels, create profiles based on that activity, and deliver online ads that match the profiles.

DoubleClick, which has a business relationship with InformationWeek, didn't admit wrongdoing in the agreement, but it must pay $450,000 to the states to cover their investigative costs and consumer education. States joining New York in the settlement are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont, and Washington. In May [2002], DoubleClick paid $1.8 million and enacted new disclosure rules to settle an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission.

Microsoft and AT&T have asked the Federal Trade Commission to review the proposed purchase of DoubleClick by Google, saying there may be antitrust issues because the buy would reduce competition in online advertising.

I suspect privacy issues are going to be hot topics over the next few years.

Like every other American, I want to feel safe in my home and outside of it. I've applauded the apprehension of criminals as the result of the proliferation of cameras on our streets and in public places.

At the same time, I am concerned that commercial corporations are building giant databases of consumers' information.

The current administration has already demonstrated a blithe disregard for both privacy issues and the Constitution in its war against terror.

However, they haven't stopped there. I did a series of three posts in January, 2006, starting here, titled "Alberto, Google and the Right to Privacy" about the lawsuit that the Gonzales Justice Department pursued in its attempt to access data from Google's database. Their intentions were pure--to stop child pornography--but the way they went about it was almost criminally stupid. It's instructive that every other search engine the Justice Department approached--Yahoo, MSN and AOL--turned over the requested information without a fight. That does NOT bode well for consumers' privacy rights. Google was the only search engine that fought the request. And Google won (see here).

In this case, Google was on the side of the angels, and I applaud them for fighting encroachment by the Justice Department.

However, the fact remains that Google will soon have an even larger, richer database by virtue of the DoubleClick purchase.

While I appreciate Google's motto of "Don't Be Evil," I'm not comfortable depending on corporate goodwill to protect my privacy rights. We need a public forum in which to address these concerns on an ongoing basis.

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