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Google Über Alles?

February 24th, 2003 · No Comments

A recent column from the BBC asks “Is Google Too Powerful?” The proposal for some sort of regulatory agency to monitor search engines strikes me as… how can I put this politely… incredibly dumb. I hope it’s obvious why, so I’ll just let that aspect of it go. Also, there are perfectly legitimate reasons for Google to keep the specifics of their ranking algorithms under wraps, especially when one considers that some webmasters have already (temporarily) succeeded in gaming the system and artificially increasing their rankings. Other points had me concerned, at least at first. The article says that Google tracks IP addresses and links them to search terms, which when you think about it, provides a pretty impressive body of information about someone’s online behavior. The article also claims that they won’t say whether or to what extent they voluntarily make the information collected available to the government. Except their privacy policy, at least, claims otherwise. They say they’ll provide aggregate information to advertisers and whatnot, but won’t provide individual information (presumably stuff like what an individual IP has been searching) without express consent. They’ll share with government when ordered to do so by a court, or presented with a valid warrant. That’s not entirely comforting, though, since in the current climate it’s looking like obtaining a warrant will soon be about as difficult as obtaining one of those AOL promo CDs.

Now, I’m not one of those folks who thinks everyone should be as concerned about privacy as I am, or as, say, Marc Rotenberg is. To paraphrase a friend, everyone says they’re protective of privacy, but half of them will trade you a DNA sample for a free Big Mac. If Google is able to stay free because they do this stuff, well, you can bite the bullet, you can find another search engine, or you can take on a bit of extra hassle and go through an anonymizer, and that’s all well and good. The BBC piece also makes the cookie Google plants sound pretty ominous. Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I wipe my cookies on a fairly regular basis, and it’s not exactly hard to do. Still, I bet it just doesn’t occur to most people that their activities are being tracked in this way. And that’s different from making a conscious decision that you’re not terribly concerened about it. The privacy policy isn’t linked from Google’s front page, so you have to pretty actively be seeking out the information to know precisely how you’re being tracked. This is possibly a bit hypocritical, given my own recent use of IP tracking for investigative purposes, but I do think this illustrates the importance of maintaining a certain amount of awareness about who’s following your clicks around the web. More so now that Blogger’s been bought by Google — meaning, presumably, that Google can now link the IP used to post to a given blog to a wide range of other online activity.

Oh, and for one reason or another, this article didn’t show up on a search of Google News when I checked for it. Go figure.

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