Google and Privacy International’s Black Band of Doom: Behavioral Ad Implications

Privacy International’s decision to assign Google the loathsome Black
Band of Privacy Sinfulness
in its new privacy ranking report was clearly intended to be provocative. The very public demerit signifies the worst possible privacy practices, though to read Matt Cutts’s rebuttal from Google and Danny Sullivan’s careful analysis, the report may deserve a black band of its own.

I wouldn’t presume to comment directly on the report’s fairness or methods, or even the likely public response to it. But it’s fair to say Google’s growing influence and antagonistic relationship with privacy watchdogs is creating a growing problem for the company, and could pose a challenge to certain of Google’s theoretical ad initiatives of the future — namely behavioral targeting.

While the company has said it will not target ads on behavior, the truth is it already does serve some behaviorally targeted ads to users of its toolbar (who agree to receive them when they install it). Many in the industry now believe it’s just a matter of time before it rolls this targeting option out elsewhere on its network. Will it be AdSense? YouTube? DoubleClick’s nascent ad exchange? Google.com is likely the last place the company would deploy behavioral targeting, but after phasing it in across a suite of other services, gauging the public reaction by degrees, why not there too?

I’m not being entirely speculative. The company has lately given signals that it’s lowering its resistance to serving ads this way, making on-the record remarks to the effect that better personalization of ads is a good thing, without ever being specific about what exactly that could mean.

A major privacy backlash against Google, or against the Web at large, coming either from the consumer or the government side of the equation, could slow down those plans — if indeed, any such plans exist. Privacy International’s report is certainly in part an attempt to generate such a backlash. Watch closely the public and legislative response. It could offer a clue about when, if ever, we can expect to see behavioral targeting on the Web’s biggest ad platform.

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