Google’s cookie firm buyout takes the privacy biscuit

Mike%20Nutley%20A few years ago, privacy was cited as this decade’s key issue for interactive media, with personal information the currency for transactions between advertisers and consumers. Proponents argued that, in return for giving up information about themselves, consumers would receive better-targeted, more relevant, even downright useful marketing messages. Sceptics argued that if people were made aware of what information they were divulging, they would be shocked.

The debate reached its highpoint in a row between online publishers and advertisers, and privacy watchdogs about the use of cookies. The argument went all the way to the European Parliament in 2003, and ended in a ruling that sites must give details of how they use cookies, and allow them to be blocked.

Since then, the debate has been bubbling under, with dissenters suggesting that consumers aren’t really seeing any benefits in return for either providing information directly, or for allowing advertisers access to their clickstreams.

The last real fuss occurred three years ago when Google launched gmail. The search giant was accused of invading gmail users’ privacy by scanning the contents of their e-mails to serve them contextually relevant advertising. Google’s response was splendidly technocratic – it argued that there could be no infringement of privacy, since all the scanning was done by computers.

So it’s not entirely surprising that Google should be at the centre of the latest privacy row. The irony is that this time it’s not just the campaigners and regulators who are up in arms, it’s the advertisers too. The issue is Google’s plan to buy ad-serving company DoubleClick. The move is consistent with the search giant’s diversification into forms of advertising beyond search, but it has led to concern that the combination of Google’s records of every search ever carried out using its technology with DoubleClick’s cookie-based data could create an unprecedented database of customer behaviour. In the case of advertisers, it’s the amount of information that Google would possess about their clients they’re worried about.

Once again, Google’s response is technology-based. The company insists there will be no data shared between DoubleClick’s and Google’s systems. In a recent interview with the FT, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt revealed Google was working on new ways of handling cookies to allay consumer fears.

This leaves three questions for marketers to consider. First, what value do people put on personal information? Or how much do you have to offer to get them to divulge a useful amount of data about themselves? Second, what are the boundaries for use of that information once it’s been collected? And third, and most importantly, who sets those boundaries? Is it done by self-regulation, or by the legislators? Because if it’s by the legislators, the battle is already lost.

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