Privacy groups slam Google’s ‘behavioral’ advertising plan

Two online privacy groups slammed Google for launching a behavioral advertising program, with one advocate calling Google’s plan a privacy “disaster.”

Google’s proposal would bring user tracking to the world’s largest ad network, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It’s a disaster,” he said. “It’s about whether the most dominant Internet media firm should be able to exploit its access to Internet user data for advertising purposes.

Google long maintained it would not do this type of advertising. Indeed, they claimed they didn’t need to and they went after others who did.”

Google privacy officials, as recently as early 2008, said they had no plans to engage in behavioral advertising. Behavioral advertising doesn’t work, Google officials said then.

Rotenberg called on the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to halt Google’s plans.

The plan, announced Wednesday on Google’s official blog and its public policy blog does allow people using Google’s AdSense network and YouTube to change their advertising preferences and to opt out of being targeted at all.

Google solicited advice from several groups before launching the behavioral advertising beta, wrote Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel. “We talked to many users, privacy advocates and government experts,” she said. “By listening to them and by relying on the creativity of our engineers, we built a product that’s not only consistent with industry groups’ privacy principles, but also goes beyond their requirements.”

Google is one of the first Internet companies to allow users to see and to change their advertising profile, according to some privacy advocates.

Google is calling the targeted-ad beta “Internet-based” advertising. The company is not using the term “behavioral advertising” because that’s “a vague term and often gets lumped in with questionable practices,” said Christine Chen, a Google spokeswoman. “Google is specifically offering the ability for advertisers to reach users who previously visited their own sites, and to reach users by the interests as determined by Google or selected by users in the Ads Preferences Manager.”

The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), another privacy advocacy group, will call on Google to allow users to opt in to behavioral tracking instead of requiring that they opt out, the current policy, said Jeffrey Chester, CDD’s executive director. Chester applauded Google for allowing users to see and change their advertising profiles, but he said that step was not enough.

“It’s a very incomplete and flawed safeguard,” Chester said in an e-mail. “Missing from what users should know and control are the applications Google uses to develop the ad so it can target and collect data.” Users should know if Google is using neuromarketing, viral marketing, rich immersive media and social networks, he said.

Chen said an opt-in model doesn’t make business sense. “We believe that most users prefer to see more relevant advertising over less relevant advertising,” she said. “Offering advertising on an opt-in basis goes against the economic model of the Internet. Consumers prefer to see more relevant advertising, which in turn better fuels many of the free services offered on the Internet. If certain users prefer not to receive interest-based ads, we believe that we give them clear information and tools to make that choice.”

Google also needs to promise it won’t target Internet users under age 18, Chester said. “The real headline is that Google has finally gone into the behavioral targeting business,” he added. “That’s why they acquired one of the world’s biggest behavioral targeting ad companies, DoubleClick. Now, they are finally admitting they are going to extend behavioral targeting through its online ad network — the world’s largest and most dominant.”

Chester disputed Google’s claims that the beta test is about delivering more interesting ads. “No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s about the most powerful interactive ad company expanding its data collection and targeting activities on users.”

The Google plan got a mixed review from Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of digital rights group the Center for Democracy and Technology. While he praised Google for allowing users to change their advertising profiles, he criticized the difficulty of opting out.

“We believe if behavioral advertising is going to work, it’s going to need something like this,” Schwartz said. “Even six months ago, people were telling us, ‘that’s too expensive, it’s never going to happen.’ Google went ahead and did it.”

However, many Web surfers may find it difficult to find the user preferences, and links on the ads, saying “Ads by Google,” don’t clearly communicate that clicking on the link will take them to a page with a link for user preferences, Schwartz said. “If it’s not opt-in [to targeted advertising], it’s got to be opt-out that’s extremely easy to use, and this is not opt-out that’s extremely easy to use.”

Schwartz is also disappointed that the Internet advertising industry has not gotten together to come up with better ways for Web surfers to control their advertising experiences, he said. Google chose a flawed way of honoring opt-out requests — by putting a cookie on users’ machines, similar to a frequently criticized model offered by the Network Advertising Initiative.

Many users and spyware software programs frequently delete cookies, Schwartz noted, although Google has offered a browser plug-in that will prevent the Google opt-out cookie from being deleted.

“The cookie opt-out doesn’t work, it’s a bad idea,” he said. “People who care about their privacy enough to opt out also are the same people who delete their cookies.”

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