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Moving Past Google Privacy Fears & Toward An Industry Solution

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Google's balancing act from News.com revisits the well-trod path of Google as potential privacy threat. Personally, I would love to get beyond these "what Google might" do stories and more toward what the search engine industry itself ought to be doing in terms of protecting privacy, especially as everyone's offering personalized search or search history features. Your comments will help, as I'll explain below.

First, the story. What's new? More people use Google for a wider range of things, and Google Accounts make it easier to track them. So privacy advocates are alarmed about Google once again.

What Google does and knows pales beside the much more detailed information Yahoo knows about registered users, who also do a wide range of things with Yahoo. The story itself even explains that Yahoo gathers much more personal identifiable information than Google, yet it's Google that gets the headline.

So as usual, it's a "Google could" thing rather than what we really need, a look at stuff actually happening.

Yesterday, Yahoo's chief data officer spoke about how Yahoo's Impulse system will show you graphical ads based on what you searched for over the past 48 hours. No red flags from anyone about that?

I wrote about a different version of this program in 2003, in my Search Privacy At Google & Other Search Engines article. I looked at how Yahoo sort of brought it out to target you via email, then dropped plans for undisclosed reasons. Suspicion as to why it was dropped? Privacy worries. You're going to profile my searches?

Now here we are in 2005, Yahoo Impulse is back with profiling of a different nature, and it's nary a word I've heard from anyone on the privacy front.

Hmm, well Yahoo did just say this yesterday. No, they've been saying this for some time. For example, CEO Terry Semel made a big deal about tapping into personal data to make more money off of search at the end of May:

Semel also said that Yahoo has embarked on a large project to make better use of the huge stores of data it has about Web users to help advertisers better target their messages. The result will be good for both consumers and advertisers, he argued, because consumers won't be "bothered" as often with offers they're not interested in and will get more offers that do interest them.

When I saw that, I wrote as part of my review of the article:

If Google said something like that, pitchforks would be out, privacy advocates enraged and the question of whether Google was really secretly evil would hit the blogosphere. Yahoo said this last Thursday, and so far, nada.

That was the end of May. Here we are in the middle of July, and I've still heard squat in terms of concerns. If any of the privacy analysts in the News.com story had them, those certainly didn't make it into the story. I suspect they didn't really raise them. It's so much easier to just fixate on Google. Google, Google, Google. The Marcia Brady Of Search gets all the attention, as usual, but the others of the Search Engine Bunch won't mind that, on this particular issue.

Hey, what about Amazon? It's been offering personalized search for over a year. Amazon's got a lot of users. Sure, not really using A9 -- but still potentially touched by this. But no one's really freaked out over Amazon offering A9 on the privacy side. This is despite Amazon actually having had to settle in a privacy case back in 2001. Amazon did, and it's silence. Google could -- but hasn't -- and it's headline time.

Orkut a threat? Gmail a threat? Yeah, these services could add to Google's knowledge about people. They're also in closed, invite-only betas. They represent potential. In reality, right now there are social networking and email systems that Google's rivals -- themselves much used -- already offer. But Google gets to be the "lightning rod."

Oh, I could go on and on. I have. Here's some past reading:

Since I'm not seeing the article I want -- the moving past what might happen and more toward what should happen -- I'm going to revisit the issue myself. You can help. Please give me your comments on what you think search engines should do on the privacy front. What are you afraid of? How long should they keep data? And what laws should protect you?

There are real concerns. I'm not dismissing these at all. There's potential for both corporate and governmental abuse of search profiles. But what we need is less hype, less putting one player in a corner and more actual suggestions of things that everyone can implement. Please contribute in our forum thread, How Should Search Engines Protect Privacy?

Postscript: Earlier I had written that the new version of Yahoo Impulse mail targeted emails, as was reported in the DM News article I referenced. Yahoo said that article was incorrect and that graphical ads are delivered.

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