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Privacy groups rip Google's targeted advertising plan

By , IDG News Service
March 11, 2009 03:30 PM ET

IDG News Service - 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."

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