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Wednesday, 11 March 2009 21:00

Uh oh, Google goes all Phorm on your ass

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The whole concept of behaviour-based targeting of online advertising is guaranteed to kick up a privacy stink wherever it appears. When that place is Google, though, the stink could quickly become something of a shit-storm.

Here at iTWire we have covered the Phorm controversy in some depth in the past. Phorm with Webwise advertising technology is controversial because it monitors user browsing habits to serve up 'appropriate' advertising messages.

Of course Phorm is not alone in the behavioral advertising space, but it has pretty much dominated the media coverage of the market since it started. The British police even got involved after British Telecom conducted secret Phorm trials.

Now Phorm can probably breathe a sigh of relief as someone more headline worthy enters the 'we will track your browsing patterns and throw adverts at you that are the best fit' market. That someone, unfortunately, being Google.

Google has kind of quietly announced, via the official blog, that it will be 'making ads more interesting.' I can only assume that was a display of irony on the part of the writer at Google, one Susan Wojcicki, VP of Product Management.

Wojcicki announced that ads are valuable, connecting people to advertisers of interest and by making those adverts more relevant it creates a better value proposition for everyone. So far so good.

Google already does this, Wojcicki recounts, by showing ads based "mainly on what your interests are at a specific moment" so if you search for digital cameras you get ads served up about digital cameras. Still so far so not too bad.

Things start getting shitty, however, when Wojcicki admits that sometimes "a keyword or the content of a web page simply doesn't give us enough information to serve highly relevant ads" and insists that Google can make things better by "using additional information about the websites people visit."

Which is why Google has launched a beta-test of an interest-based advertising scheme to run on partner sites and also on YouTube. Adverts served will associate categories of interest with the sites you visit and the pages you view.

Wojcicki admits that it raises questions about user choice and privacy, but insists that Google has this covered by allowing users to opt out of the advertising cookie that does the tracking and by providing a plug-in to ensure your browser maintains that opted out choice.

Of course, Google could show an even greater commitment to user privacy and choice by making this 'we are watching what you do' scheme an opt-in only one. But then again, Google has already admitted that privacy does not exist, so maybe not huh?

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