What If Google Announced: “Google Is Big Brother”?

By Phil Butler
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googlewatchGoogle may in fact be George Orwell’s “Big Brother”. According to the news today from AP, Google will be using its technologies and user behavior to better determine how to target advertising. Many feared Google’s $3.2 billion purchase of DoubleClick last year because of the implications, and now Google has acknowledged having a “user learning” program in place. Ads refined by this technology are set to be launched within the next few weeks, making it rather apparent Google has had this ability for some time.

Initial ads will appear on YouTube and other sites within Google’s ad network according to the AP report. Google claims they intensified their monitoring of users back in December, when they began inserting cookies from DoubleClick on their partner’s Web sites. However, logic would seem to dictate that Google has been working on this technology since the DoubleClick acquisition. Marc Rosenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center is just one of many who are concerned about these developments.

“I don’t think the world’s largest search engine should be in the business of profiling people.”

Google’s ad strategy has been “search specific” rather than “behavioral” like competitors Yahoo! and Microsoft. Rosenberg and others are hoping that this news will prompt the Federal Trade Commission to re-examine the DoubleClick deal. Google’s position is unique in that their search dominance offers them inestimable potential to “harvest” data from users. Besides affording them a nearly exclusive advantage over competitors, the privacy issue looms large here.

Google is trying to sidestep any regulatory issues, and has set up a system so that users can specify their interests and turn off some forms of advertising. While this may appear altruistic, obviously the system only helps Google further refine ads. This feature is “pitched” to us “drippy sweet” from Google’s Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wang:

We are pleased that our launch of interest-based advertising includes innovative, consumer-friendly features to provide meaningful transparency and choice for our users.

Of course Google, like Yahoo! and Microsoft, offers an “opt out” solution for users. Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, suggested that Google is betting most people will not take the time to opt out of the scheme, he went on to pretty much sum up the whole user data question:

“We are now in an arms race of digital data collection where companies are trying to outdo each other in pursuit of the 21st century’s Holy Grail — advertising.”

The latest foray of Google announcements should be considered indicative of a broader strategy. Announcing expandable ads just the other day, along with today’s news, may indicate larger strategic movement for the Internet’s biggest winner. Whether these moves are in response to Yahoo!, Microsoft or even recent worldwide economic upheaval ( described by CEO Eric Schmidt as “dire”), Google appears to be tipping its hand on user data to a degree.

From this writer’s perspective, these strategies address market issues on several fronts. Beyond competing with its distant rivals in advertising, Google is probably circumventing any ad market losses to Microsoft’s new Kumo search engine. All be it something of a stretch, if Kumo is powered by an accelerated developmental version of Powerset, a big win for Microsoft can only be negated with an advanced ad model on the revenue side of the equation. Regardless of where and at what Google’s strategy is targeted, it is obvious they are making a big push. Remember this, Google’s advantage is not in search relevance as much as it is in their advertising dominance.

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  • As scary as it may sound to some-for those that use google search results to promote their business I guess it just means that people will have to figure out how to take advantage of the nicheness that targets their audience that Google will have developed

  • Hmmm – curious.

    I am a little startled that the “opt-out” only works on a cookie basis. You set the opt-out cookie in your current browser (I use many) on your current computer (ditto) using the link you gave. You can download a permanent opt-out plugin, but again this is on a browser by browser basis.

    …as the information collected is presumably linked to your user account – why oh why is it not a user account option? Or is it the case that the profiling [i]isn’t[/i] linked to your user account, but just to the extant cookie?

    If it’s the former – I have just become profoundly suspicious of google. If it’s the latter – then it really isn’t a biggy…..

  • randywehrs

    I think it sounds dangerous because the subject involves concepts like “profiling” and “behavior” but really, we still are only talking about internet advertising right? What I mean is that there isn’t much else google can do with this information about us.
    Next time I go onto YouTube and see an ad for a cooking website, should I fear big brother? After all, I did search for a quiche recipe yesterday. I’m even thinking that it’s even potentially beneficial: If someone is searching for how to make a big bomb… They could do really some good things with this technology. No?

  • Everyone in public gets profiled, you have a supermarket discount card, you have a bank card, your profiled!

    When it comes to marketing and statistics and user base, Google is doing the right thing.

    Google targets ads according to surfing behavior.

    If you have an adwords account you do not want to waste your exposure for disposable diapers on me.

    Google for drive recovery and you will get Google ads for any kind of abuse recovery (may not be a good example but you get the idea). now track my surfing habits and they can totally target something I am looking for.

    If I choose to advertise on Google, I want a target audience.

    Anyway, big brother knows your address and knows your conversations and movements and brings enforcements for bad behavior defined by big brother (Google).

    Holy crap, its good and evil.

    We are all marketers and casual surfers and most everyone buys something online.

    Without smart targeting of adwords there would be no Google.

    Google is all about marketing which is what drives their search engine, has been from the beginning. They are just ramping up. Expect the microsoft of search engines.

    • Thanks for the input guys. I am not really so worried about this new system sending the right ads to me, it is just the way in which these things are presented. Worio, which we wrote about not long ago, profiles user behavior as will any good recommendation system. A new ad model is badly needed any way, so that some of these sites we like can monetize more efficiently. Google’s problem is that they claim or insinuate one thing and then do another. They had to whitewash the DoubleClick buy in order to get it past regulators, then they come out a few weeks before throwing behavior ad suggestion at us and say they just got it right. We are supposed to believe they paid billions for something and the POOF?

      We should demand more transparency from companies. They claim to be “in the cloud”, open source, open standards, data portable, and a whole universe of Web 2.0 whatever terms, and then act like traditional business. Well, they are traditional business, nothing warm or fuzzy and nebulous about Google. That is my grip, along with the probability they use people’s every move for lord knows what behind the scenes. This is why I used the Big Brother metaphor, you gotta know they are doing this. Don’t ya?


  • webnician

    I am just NOT worried about this. All of the concerns I hear sound paranoid. Some people just want to be victims.

    Google serving up ads based on your search habits is equivalent to trying to sell you socks because you asked about shoes. It doesn’t imply that they tied that to any personal information or gave the information to someone who can use it against you.

    Google admitting that it’s tracking your searches is irrelevant. Any practices by any parties that could actually do you any harm won’t be in a press release and is/was already being done.

    Advocates for privacy would better spend their time studying our laws and government officials.

    …and the revolution will not be televised.

  • randywehrs

    I agree with you Phil, there is a certain amount of secrecy and shadiness about the whole google pretense, and it’s curious. Another unrelated example would be their purchasing of GrandCentral years ago, and their apparent inaction with the concept and company, until just yesterday they announce that they plan on taking over world phone services as well! It makes me wonder if they do this because their secrecy is their M.O. and/or marketing strategy, or if they really are inadvertently becoming big brother! Interesting concept… Good article.

  • Targetted advertising doesn’t make Google “Big Brother”. I actually appreciate advertising that is targeted to please my needs.
    If Google would announce it aspires to create a totalitarian society, then it would be Big Brother.

    • Google is not Big Brother, or is it? An interesting proposition. There are many ways this could be postulated. 100 million people use Gmail, about 3/4 of the Internet population uses Google search as their primary mechanism for finding their way around. A score of other Google applications do everything from registering the kinds of videos millions watch to actually keeping track of the schedules of CEO’s (Google Calendar). Hmmmm. Google gains access to the Library of Congress, Google maintains the primary monetization schema for nearly most of the websites on the Internet, Google, Google, Google…

      This one scenario, or beginning postulate of what we might call a “conspiracy theory”. puts about as much personal information and raw data in the hands of Google (much of it real time data) as in the hands of the CIA, the FBI, and who knows who else. I get this vision of a giant room full of gold and jewels (information), with a smiling little boy sitting in the middle of it flipping one shiny gold coin. The preview ends when we all close the door to the room wondering; “Will the little boy be satisfied with the one coin?”

      Information is worth more than gold. Google is in the search business, should we assume all that information (more actually than just what kind of sneakers you like to wear) is not being searched, references, collated and otherwise manipulated by a company with billions of dollars in computers and a proclivity for sorting stuff out…run by super geeks who’s god is code and video gaming cheats for all we know? Look at it this way, you see the spread of this company, the way it works, and still wonder if they would use trillions of dollars worth of data without you knowing about it. If you could do it, and not get caught, would you.

      So, there we have one illusion of how Google might become Big Brother for all intents and purposes. Another might be a fluff and puffy panda that just wants to look at your bamboo shoots…he/she promises not to eat it. A cuddly bear so altruisitc it is only concerned with your needs. Can you think of others? :)


      PS Many people actually believe that because there are laws against murder, there can be no such thing as murder. :)

  • I hope this will result in more related ads displayed for my websites. I often find advertisement on my website thats totally unrelated which I believe is the reason for my low CTR.

    On the issue of google being the Big Brother, I’m not really that bothered, what I do online is no secret, however I could understand if other people are in fact worried.

  • Arkh

    Your searches. Even “anonymous” they can be used to do awesome things (see AOL leaked search logs story).
    Your emails if you use Gmail.
    Your navigation habits if you visit websites using adsense or google analytics.
    Your youtube / googlevideo habits.

    Individually, nothing to fear. But combined, that’s a lot.
    And you just need one person having access to that who wants to use it.