Thoughts: Google and ‘Interest Based’ Advertising

200903121245.jpgPrivacy. Privacy, Privacy, Privacy.

Google is persistently in the limelight for it’s ‘invasions’ of personal privacy. I’ve made references to Google and privacy in a variety of blog posts, but whenever I think about Google my mind returns to a comment from Peter Fleischer, the chief privacy officer for Google. In a post in 2007, he wrote (in his personal blog) that:

. . . privacy is about more than legal compliance, it’s fundamentally about user trust. Be transparent with your users about your privacy practices. If your users don’t trust you, you’re out of business (Source)

Perhaps naively, I think that this statement is accurate – look at the nightmares that Facebook, NebuAd, and Phorm (to name a few) all have when they ‘invade’ customers’ privacy without being fully transparent about what, and why, they are engaging in their practices. What’s more, as soon as you establish an ‘it’s our way, or no way’ approach, you immediate establish a hostile environment between you and your users. In business, your users are your lifeblood; alienate them only if you really like polishing your resume.

So, how do you roll out ‘interest based’ advertising (i.e. behavioral advertising) and not run the risk of alienating your consumer base? In Google’s case, they have an easily understandable (though not so easily found) opt-out system. The same pane that lets you opt out also lets you see what Google has tagged as your interests and lets you add/remove them as you see fit. While I’m not a fan of behavioral ads, and don’t think that Google’s solution would eliminate all of the concerns, this is the first time that a company has offered an easily understood, easily used, opt-out system in a reasonably transparent fashion (something that certainly can’t be said about either NebuAd or Phorm). Presuming that Google is willing to continue ‘improving’ the system over time (e.g. make it easier to find the bloody preference pane!) this might be a step towards a new generation of advertising that isn’t quite as horrific as those systems reliant on DPI.