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LinkedIn, The Media Company?

By - March 13, 2012

Quick, what’s LinkedIn? If you’re like me, the first thing that comes to mind is “a professional social network.” Perhaps “a place to get a job, or find someone to fill a job.” Or maybe “the place my professional resume lives.” And certainly “a very successful Internet IPO.”

But over the two years or so, LinkedIn has quietly built itself into a significant media business. It’s added a newsfeed, status updates, and “top stories today” features. Late last month, it added “following”  as well. And I’ve begun to notice the LinkedIn share button popping up all over the web – it isn’t quite the attention engine that Twitter has become, but its power is rising. (Yep, I’ve got one on this site too).

All those media bells and whistles combine to create a robust advertising business, complete with a Facebook-like self service platform driven by your social graph. That business has been scaling right along with its core recruitment and jobs posting revenue, accounting for about a third of the company’s topline.  Given that LinkedIn added more members last year than in the prior 6 – about 60 million, for a global total of 150 million, I predict it won’t be long before LinkedIn becomes a “must buy” for any marketer who targets professionals. And that’s a lot of marketers.

It doesn’t hurt that the business has been killing it – beating Wall Street expectations and outperforming most recent Internet IPOs.

The man steering LinkedIn, CEO Jeff Weiner, will join me onstage next week at our Signal San Francisco show. We’ll have one of our trademark conversations, and I’m inviting you to help me interview him. Given Signal focuses on the media and marketing business, we’ll certainly cover off on that part of Weiner’s purview.  But what else might you want to hear from Weiner? He’s always a fun interview, and usually shares very candid opinions of other players in the Internet ecosystem (he was a top executive at Yahoo and Warner Brothers prior to joining LinkedIn).

Join us at Signal to hear Jeff, along with a killer lineup that includes Adam Bain, President of Global Revenue at Twitter, Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA, Michele DiLorenzo, CEO of Jumptime, Konrad Feldman, CEO of Quantcast, Ross Levinsohn, EVP Yahoo, Alison Pincus, CEO of One Kings Lane, Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram, Tina Sharkey, CEO of BabyCenter, and many, many others. It’s a wonderful group, so register now!

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Who Controls Our Data? A Puzzle.

By - March 11, 2012

(image) Facebook claims the data we create inside Facebook is ours – that we own it. In fact, I confirmed this last week in an interview with Facebook VP David Fischer on stage at FM’s Signal P&G conference in Cincinnati. In the conversation, I asked Fischer if we owned our own data. He said yes.

Perhaps unfairly  (I’m pretty sure Fischer is not in charge of data policy), I followed up my question with another: If we own our own data, can we therefore take it out of Facebook and give it to, say, Google, so Google can use it to personalize our search results?

Fischer pondered that question, realized its implications, and backtracked. He wasn’t sure about that, and it turns out, it’s more complicated to answer that question – as recent stories about European data requests have revealed.*

I wasn’t planning on asking Fischer that question, but I think it came up because I’ve been pondering the implications of “you as the platform” quite a bit lately. If it’s *our* data in Facebook, why can’t we take it and use it on our terms to inform other services?

Because, it turns out, regardless of any company’s claim around who owns the data, the truth is, even if we could take our data and give it to another company, it’s not clear the receiving company could do anything with it. Things just aren’t set up that way. But what if they were?

The way things stand right now, our data is an asset held by companies, who then cut deals with each other to leverage that data (and, in some cases, to bundle it up as a service to us as consumers). Microsoft has a deal to use our Facebook data on Bing, for example. And of course, the inability of Facebook and Google to cut a data sharing deal back in 2009 is one of the major reasons Google built Google+. The two sides simply could not come to terms, and that failure has driven an escalating battle between major Internet companies to lock all of us into their data silos. With the cloud, it’s only getting worse (more on that in another post).

And it’s not fair to just pick on Facebook. The question should be asked of all services, I think. At least, of all services which claim that the data we give that service is, in fact, ours (many services share ownership, which is fine with me, as long as I don’t lose my rights.)

I have a ton of pictures up on Instagram now, for example (you own your own content there, according to the service’s terms). Why can’t I “share” that data with Google or Bing, so those pictures show up in my searches? Or with Picasa, where I store most of my personal photographs?

I have a ton of data inside an app called “AllSport GPS,” which tracks my runs, rides, and hikes. Why can’t I share that with Google, or Facebook, or some yet-to-be-developed app that monitors my health and well being?

Put another way, why do I have to wait for all these companies to cut data sharing deals through their corporate development offices? Sure, I could cut and paste all my data from one to the other, but really, who wants to do that?!

In the future, I hope we’ll be our own corp dev offices. An office of one, negotiating data deals on the fly, and on our own terms. It’ll take a new architecture and a new approach to sharing, but I think it’d open up all sorts of new vectors of value creation on the web.

This is why I’m bullish on Singly and the Locker Project. They’re trying to solve a very big problem, and worse, one that most folks don’t even realize they have. Not an easy task, but an important one.

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*Thanks to European law, Facebook is making copies of users’ data available to them – but it makes exemptions that protect its intellectual property, trade secrets, and it won’t give data that “cannot be extracted from our platform in the absence of is proportionate effort.” What defines Facebook’s “trade secrets” and “intellectual property”? Well, there’s the catch. Just as with Google’s search algorithms, disclosure of the data Facebook is holding back would, in essence, destroy Facebook’s competitive edge, or so the company argues. Catch 22. I predict we’re going to see all this tested by services like Singly in the near future. 

 

On the State of Twitter Advertising: Adam Bain

By - March 06, 2012

Last week I wrote a post about Neal Mohan, who will be joining us for this month’s Signal conference in San Francisco. Today I’m focusing on Adam Bain and his role as President, Global Revenue at Twitter.

I’ve known Adam for some time, since his days at Fox Interactive Media, where he built Fox’s advertising platform (initially as a product out of MySpace). He joined Twitter a year and a half ago, and since then, has overseen the development of its “promoted” suite of products. Just recently, Twitter has expanded its roll out of what CEO Dick Costolo calls its “atomic unit” of advertising, the Promoted Tweet, to its mobile base, a significant move mirrored by Facebook at nearly the same time. It’s also opened up a self-service portal to its ad machine, a crucial move that drove early adoption of search and Facebook advertising.

When you are in charge of revenue for a company valued at $8 billion, the heat is on – the estimated $140 million or so Twitter pulled in last year ain’t gonna cut it. The company needs to scale its advertising platform to Google and Facebook levels, in terms of efficiency, response, and return on marketing investment. That’s no easy feat. In fact, it’s only been done a few times – by Facebook, Google, and arguably Overture (before Yahoo’s purchase and subsequent deal with Microsoft).

Hence last week’s Journal piece on Twitter’s attempts to woo ad giant P&G – the Journal argues that to get to billions in revenue, Twitter has to get companies like P&G to see the service as an “upfront” partner – the kind of company P&G spends with year after year.

The company has work to do, but is confident it’s figured out a path that will justify its lofty valuation. At the SF Signal conference, I’ll have a chance to sit down with Adam and discuss that path, as well as any number of other issues of interest. My question to you all – what do you think those items might be? Comments welcome, and if you’re wondering whether to come to Signal, please, register now! We’ve got quite the lineup, and we’re close to sold out.

 

Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation.

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(image) Here’s a short overview of Google’s past few months: It’s angered policymakers and pundits with a sweeping change to its privacy settings. It’s taken a beating for favoring its own properties in its core search results. It’s been caught with its hands in Apple’s cookie jar, and despite the fact Facebook and others previously condoned the practice, it was savaged for doing so. It’s continuing to fight an expensive and uncertain patent war. And its blinkered focus on beating Facebook - a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically – has caused many to wonder….What on earth has happened to the Google we once knew?

Has it abandoned its principles of supporting the open web, data liberation, and doing no evil? Is Google turning into … another walled garden?

Well, those are questions I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I think I have an answer, or at least, some reasonable speculation as to an answer.

Here’s the short version of the answer: Google is playing for the long term, but it feels it has no choice but to make these moves now. It’s in a “rip off the band aid” phase of the game.

The longer version goes something like this: Google had identified a central and existential threat to its future, and that threat is….us. Or rather, the fact that Google doesn’t have a direct relationship with us, in the way Apple or Facebook does.

Think about it. When you use Facebook, you’re always logged in, and your identity and relationships – to others, to content, to apps and services – are assets Facebook can use to customize your experience (oh, and your ads). You then take that identity and those relationships, and you promiscuously spread them around the web, logging into any number of services through Facebook’s Open Graph, giving Facebook an even deeper sense of who you are, what you consume, and what you “like.” You happily give Facebook terabytes of structured data about yourself, content with the implicit tradeoff that Facebook is going to give you a social service that makes your life better.

And anytime Facebook wants to change how it might use all that data about you, in any way, across any service it has within the Facebook ecosystem, all it has to do is change one privacy policy, tell you about it, and that’s that.

Oh, and did you know that Facebook changes the code underlying its services on a daily, if not hourly basis? Have you ever asked Facebook to get your approval for those changes, or for details on how they might effect you, or whether you can go back to using an earlier version of Facebook? Of course not. And when was the last time you read Facebook’s privacy policy? OK, if you read Searchblog, you probably have read it, at least once. Most folks? Nah. We trust Facebook to not do stupid things, if it does, we’ll just leave. Right?

Now think about Apple. For those of us who use its iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or iTunes and other products, Apple has a complete picture of both our identity, and our relationship to Apple services (like iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto, MobileMe, etc.) as well as to the huge universe of apps on its devices. It also has a few hundred million of our credit card numbers, something Facebook can only dream of having (don’t worry, Facebook is working on that).

Oh, and when Apple wants to push a new version of iOS, its operating system, it simply does it. You might take the time to read the documentation as to what changed since the last operating system, but I doubt it. Like most of us, you just accept the update, because you don’t want your phone to stop working. Right?

Ditto for Apple’s terms of service and privacy policies. Have you ever read them? Really? Then you’re in a very small minority. Most of us don’t bother, because we trust Apple – like with Facebook, we figure if they do something that really pisses us off, we’ll drop them for an alternative. Right?

Finally, let’s think about our relationship with Google, circa mid 2011, before Google+ was introduced. For most of us, Google meant search, and the majority of us used search anonymously – we weren’t logged in. Google has been working on getting us to “personalize” search by logging in for years, but that only solved part of its problem. Hundreds of millions of us also used other Google products – Picasa for photos, YouTube for culture fixes, Gmail for communication, Blogger for expression, Maps, Docs, and lord knows what else for productivity. Not to mention, hundreds of millions more of us started using Chrome and Android.

Now, before Google+, every single one of those services had its own set of policies, its own approach to identity management, and its own vast data silos. It was one big hot holy mess, from Google’s point of view. As customers, we saw Google as one brand, but the truth is, we used its various services as if each came from a different company.

And that meant Google couldn’t compete with Apple or Facebook when it came to any number of crucial factors. It had no single point of reference for communicating with its customers. It had no way to link its services and provide  consistent updates, policy changes, or shared uses (would you like to integrate your Picasa photos into your Google search results? Sorry bud, I don’t know who you are, you’re out of luck!).

And this created one Very Big Problem for Larry Page & Co: Google couldn’t be elegant, or design driven, or easy to use. And we consumers have proven that we really, really want those things in our web services. That’s why Apple is winning. It’s why Facebook is winning. And it’s why Google was desperately afraid that it was about to lose.

So Google held its nose, built Google+ as its connective tissue, and plunged into a world of pain. It’s not over yet, but the game is afoot. Google is in the process of becoming Apple- and Facebook-like in its relationship to us.

Does that mean that Google will become Apple and Facebook? Time will tell, but my suspicion is no. And as much as I’d like to say the reason is high-minded, I think it’s more about competitive positioning. The people I know at Google really believe in the open web. They believe in data portability. And they believe in supporting an ecosystem that isn’t entirely under Google’s control. It’s that open-web ecosystem that created Google (and Facebook, and Apple, for that matter). And I think Google sees an end game – once it has direct, meaningful relationships with its customers, it believes it will be seen as the most open and accommodative player amongst the Internet Big Five. It will compete on policy and data use, and it believes it will win on those points. It will provide alternatives to Facebook and Apple, and it believes those alternatives will prove more consumer friendly over time.

At least, I hope that’s what Google believes….for now, there’s much work to be done. The integration of its privacy policy is step one. The next step is to provide a better privacy dashboard than Facebook currently does (Facebook, to its credit, has come a long, long way here. Apple? Not so much. I can’t find a dashboard for privacy settings anywhere). Then, Google must take another plunge, and allow us to use our data any way we want, both inside and outside of Google’s services. The more open Google proves to be over time, the more customers it will win in the long term. Oh, and then it has to figure out how to link Android to all of this (good luck with that one…).

Apple and Facebook have already shown themselves to have a philosophy of domain-specificity: everything works great, as long as you’re within their controlled domains. Building an open web alternative to that approach is messy, it’s painful, and it sometimes appears to contradict Google’s core principles. But I believe, in the end, it’s what Google is trying to do.

I shudder to think of an opposite outcome – where Google begins to act just like its main competitors. It could happen – and many of you have given up on the company doing anything but just that. But I think the world needs an alternative, and there are precious few companies with the heft and motivation to create one. In fact, there’s really just one…at least, for now.

On The State of Google’s Advertising Business: Neal Mohan at Signal SF

By - February 29, 2012

If you’ve been reading Searchblog, you know I’ve been writing quite a bit about Google, privacy, and the advertising business. All of those topics are going to be coming together in my interview with Neal Mohan, VP Product at Google, on the Signal SF stage next month.

Neal oversees display and mobile advertising for Google, and works directly with the company’s entire advertising stack, a formidable lineup of products that include the Doubleclick ad server and exchange businesses, AdSense, the Invite Media demand side platform, the pending AdMeld supply side platform, AdMob, and much more. Given the tempests over Google’s integration of its privacy policies, the integration of Google+ into Google search, and Google’s circumvention of Apple’s Safari browser, it’s bound to be quite a conversation.

Register for Signal:SF here (we’re closing in on a sell out), and please leave any questions or comments you might have for Neal below. I’ll be listening and integrating your input. Also, below are a few more links for you to peruse on the topic of Google and its advertising business (as well as that of its main competitor now, Facebook).

Risk and Riches in User Data for Facebook (NYT)

Google: Calling Our Ad System Closed is ‘Ridiculous’ (Digiday)

Search Still Drives Google, but Display Ads a $5 Billion Business (AdAge)

New Display Ad Push Adds to Bag of Tricks (WSJ)

Study Finds News Sites Fail to Aim Ads at Users (NYT)

Google to Pass Facebook in Display Ads in 2013: eMarketer (eWeek)

‘Do Not Track’ won’t halt data flow (Boston Globe)

Google On Defensive Yet Again In Snafu Over Ad-Tracking In Safari Browsers (paidContent)

Google sugarcoated privacy policy changes to mislead users, group charges (ZDnet)

A Sad State of Internet Affairs (Searchblog)

A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked”

By - February 27, 2012

I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.

Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.

While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of  a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.

Anyway, I stayed at the Westin, as as such, I visited the Westin site many a time during my stay for various reasons (I also visited before I came, of course, to research stuff like whether it had a gym, restaurant menus, and the like).

Now, besides visiting the Westin site while at Mammoth, I also visited Amazon.com, because I was looking to buy a particular adapter for my SIM card. I’m eager to try out the new Nexus Galaxy, but the SIM in my iPhone is a different size, and to use it in the Nexus, I need an adapter.

I didn’t end up buying the adapter, because I got distracted, but I did visit Amazon’s page for the device.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because after visiting those two sites (Westin and Amazon), I noticed the ads I was seeing as I cruised the web changed. A lot. In particular, on my own site, which is powered by the company I chair, FM:

The ad at the top is from Amazon, with a picture of the very thing I almost bought. Now, is that creepy, or is that useful?

The ad on the side is from Westin, offering me a free night or $500 credit if I book another Westin vacation. Again, creepy, or …potentially a benefit?

This is “tracking” at work, and while some of us find it creepy, I find it rather benign. Both those ads are very pertinent to *me*, and one (the Westin) might even save me a lot of money – I love the idea of getting a free night at a place I’ve already stayed at and enjoyed (and I am a Starwood member, and stay at a lot of other Westins, so heck, I might just use that offer sometime soon).

Regardless of those specifics, it’s hard to argue that these ads are *worse* than the undifferentiated slop that once filled up ad space across the web. And that’s pretty much the point of cookie-driven advertising – that it use our data to offer up marketing messages that are, in the end, better than if the advertisers didn’t have the data in the first place.

After all, Facebook and Google offer up exactly the same kind of ads on their owned and operated domains – ads that are relevant to you – based on data you provided to them (the search term, or your Facebook profile). Somehow that’s OK, but when it’s done across the open web – well, then it’s “creepy.”

The problem, I think, is that we generally don’t trust these third-party advertising networks – we think they are doing nefarious things with our data, somehow screwing us, tracking us like hunted animals, creating vast profiles that could fall into the wrong hands. And the ad industry needs to address this issue of trust.

If you look at both those ads, it turns out the industry is doing just that. Each of the ads have an “ad choices” logo you can click to find out what’s going on behind the ad. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on Amazon’s “privacy” link:

This page clearly explains why I’m seeing the ad, and offers me an explicit choice to opt out of seeing ads like this in the future. Seems fair to me.

Here’s what I see when I clicked on the “ad choices” logo for the Westin ad:

That’s a popover, telling me that my browsing activity (I assume my multiple visits to Westin.com) has informed the offer. It tells me that an ad network owned by Akamai is behind the tracking and trafficking of the ad. And it offers me more links, should I want to learn more. I clicked on the “More information & opt out options” link, and saw this from Evidon,which Akamai uses to power its opt out and other programs:

This page offers a prominent opt out for the companies who served me the ad. it even offers a link to Ghostery, a service which I’ve used in the past to track who’s dropping cookies and such on my browser.

Now, I’m not arguing that this system is perfect, but it’s certainly quite a step forward from where we were a year ago.

And no, I didn’t opt out of anything. Not because I founded an Independent web advertising and content company (FM), but because frankly, I think the ads I’m getting are better as a result of this ecosystem. And I’m getting benefits I wouldn’t have had before (a free night at the Westin, a reminder to go get that SIM adapter I hadn’t yet bought). And, frankly, because this is all happening on the Independent web, insuring that small sites like mine get a chance to benefit from the same kind of value that Facebook and Google already have as “first party” websites – the value of my data. (More on this point in later posts, I am sure).

Now, if these companies end up doing evil, wrongheaded, or plain stupid things with my data, I’m going to be the first to opt out. And there’s plenty more we have to do to get this ecosystem right. But I thought it instructive to lay out how it’s working so far. And so far, I don’t find it anything but benign, if not actually useful. What do you think?

Obama’s Framework for “Consumer Data Privacy” And My “Data Bill of Rights”

By - February 26, 2012

It sort of feels like “wayback week” for me here at Searchblog, as I get caught up on the week’s news after my vacation. Late last week the Obama administration announced “Consumer Data Privacy In A Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.”

The document runs nearly 50 pages, but turns on a “Privacy Bill of Rights” – and when I read that phrase, it reminded me of a post I did four years ago: The Data Bill of Rights.

I thought I’d compare what I wrote with what the Obama administration is proposing.

First, the Administrations’ key points:

Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

And now my “Data Bill of Rights” from 2007:

- Data Portability. We can take copies of that data out of the company’s coffers and offer it to others or just keep copies for ourselves.

- Data Editing. We can request deletions, editing, clarifications of our data for accuracy and privacy.

- Data Anonymity. We can request that our data not be used, cognizant of the fact that that may mean services are unavailable to us.

- Data Use. We have rights to know how our data is being used inside a company.

- Data Value. The right to sell our data to the highest bidder.

- Data Permissions. The right to set permissions as to who might use/benefit from/have access to our data.

Comparing the two, it seems the Administration has not addressed the issue of what I call portability, at all, which I think is a bummer. Nor does it consider the idea of Value, which I think the market is going to address over time. It does address what I call editing, anonymity (what I should have called “opt out”), use, and permissions.

What the administration added that I did not have is “security” – the right to know your data is secure (I think I took that for granted), and “Focused Collection” and “Respect For Context,” which I agree with – don’t collect data for data’s sake, and we should have the right that data collected about us is being used in proper context.

Given how much this issue is in the news lately, as well as the overwhelming response to my post last Friday about Google and Apple, I’m getting as smart as I can on these issues.

Further coverage of the Administration’s move at RWW: Obama Administration Sides with Consumers in Online Privacy Debate and Paid Content Big Tech, Obama And The Politics Of Privacy as well as Ad Age, which is skeptical: Did The White House Just Thread The Needle On Privacy?

Apple Gets Into (App) Search

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It took longer than I thought it would, but it’s finally happened. Apple’s admitted that it needs real search to bring it’s tangled app universe to heel, and purchased Chomp, a leading third-party app review and search service.

Nearly two years ago I wrote this piece:  Apple Won’t Build a (Web) Search Engine. From it:

…but it will build the equivalent of an app search engine. It’s crazy not to. In fact, it has to. It already has app discovery via the iTunes store, but it’s terrible, with no signal that gives reliable results based on accrued intent.

What Apple needs is a search engine that “crawls” apps, app content, and app usage data, then surfaces recommendations as well as content . To do this, mobile apps will need to make their content available for Apple to crawl. And why wouldn’t you if you’re Yelp, for example? Or Facebook, for that matter? An index of apps+social signal+app content would be quite compelling.

What Apple will NOT do is crawl the entire web.

I still think that last sentence will remain true. It’s my hope that Apple continues to develop Chomp and help “real search” – the kind I describe above, to happen in iOS.

A Sad State of Internet Affairs: The Journal on Google, Apple, and “Privacy”

By - February 16, 2012

The news alert from the Wall St. Journal hit my phone about an hour ago, pulling me away from tasting “Texas Bourbon” in San Antonio to sit down and grok this headline: Google’s iPhone Tracking.

Now, the headline certainly is attention-grabbing, but the news alert email had a more sinister headline: “Google Circumvented Web-Privacy Safeguards.”

Wow! What’s going on here?

Turns out, no one looks good in this story, but certainly the Journal feels like they’ve got Google in a “gotcha” moment. As usual, I think there’s a lot more to the story, and while I’m Thinking Out Loud right now, and pretty sure there’s a lot more than I can currently grok, there’s something I just gotta say.

First, the details.  Here’s the lead in the Journal’s story, which requires a login/registration:

Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.”

Now, from what I can tell, the first part of that story is true – Google and many others have figured out ways to get around Apple’s default settings on Safari in iOS – the only browser that comes with iOS, a browser that, in my experience, has never asked me what kind of privacy settings I wanted, nor did it ask if I wanted to share my data with anyone else (I do, it turns out, for any number of perfectly good reasons). Apple assumes that I agree with Apple’s point of view on “privacy,” which, I must say, is ridiculous on its face, because the idea of a large corporation (Apple is the largest, in fact) determining in advance what I might want to do with my data is pretty much the opposite of “privacy.”

Then again, Apple decided I hated Flash, too, so I shouldn’t be that surprised, right?

But to the point, Google circumvented Safari’s default settings by using some trickery described in this WSJ blog post, which reports the main reason Google did what it did was so that it could know if a user was a Google+ member, and if so (or even if not so), it could show that user Google+ enhanced ads via AdSense.

In short, Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice,  and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google’s “normal approach” wrong? Well, I suppose that’s a debate worth having – it’s currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire web advertising ecosystem –  but the Journal doesn’t bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default – but the fact is, that’s how it’s done on the open web.

The Journal article does later acknowledge, though not in a way that a reasonable reader would interpret as meaningful, that the mobile version of Safari has “default” (ie not user activated) settings that prevent Google and others (like ad giant WPP) to track user behavior the way they do on the “normal” Web. That’s a far cry from the Journal’s lead paragraph, which again, states Google bypassed the “the privacy settings of millions of people.” So when is a privacy setting really a privacy setting, I wonder? When Apple makes it so?

Since this story has broken, Google has discontinued its practice, making it look even worse, of course.

But let’s step back a second here and ask: why do you think Apple has made it impossible for advertising-driven companies like Google to execute what are industry standard practices on the open web (dropping cookies and tracking behavior so as to provide relevant services and advertising)? Do you think it’s because Apple cares deeply about your privacy?

Really?

Or perhaps it’s because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they’re browsing the web, as “Apple’s customer,” and wants to throttle potential competitors, insuring that it’s impossible to access to “Apple’s” audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion? Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR friendly clothing of  ”privacy protection” for users?

That’s at least a credible idea, I’d argue.

I don’t know, but when I bought an iPhone, I didn’t think I was singing up as an active recruit in Apple’s war on the open web. I just thought I was getting “the Internet in my pocket” – which was Apple’s initial marketing pitch for the device. What I didn’t realize was that it was “the Internet, as Apple wishes to understand it, in my pocket.”

It’d be nice if the Journal wasn’t so caught up in its own “privacy scoop” that it paused to wonder if perhaps Apple has an agenda here as well. I’m not arguing Google doesn’t have an agenda – it clearly does. I’m as saddened as the next guy about how Google has broken search in its relentless pursuit of beating Facebook, among others.

In this case, what Google and others have done sure sounds wrong – if you’ve going to resort to tricking a browser into offering up information designated by default as private, you need to somehow message the user and explain what’s going on. Then again, in the open web, you don’t have to – most browsers let you set cookies by default. In iOS within Safari, perhaps such messaging is technically impossible, I don’t know. But these shenanigans are predictable, given the dynamic of the current food fight between Google, Apple, Facebook, and others. It’s one more example of the sad state of the Internet given the war between the Internet Big Five. And it’s only going to get worse, before, I hope, it gets better again.

Now, here’s my caveat: I haven’t been able to do any reporting on this, given it’s 11 pm in Texas and I’ve got meetings in the morning. But I’m sure curious as to the real story here. I don’t think the sensational headlines from the Journal get to the core of it. I’ll depend on you, fair readers, to enlighten us all on what you think is really going on.

Nearly 90% of the World Uses Mobile Phones

By - February 13, 2012

In the normal course of research for the book, I wondered how quickly mobile phone use got to the 1 billion mark. I figured we’re well past that number now, but I had no idea how far past it we’ve blown.Like, six times past it. We hit 1 billion in the year 2000, and never looked back.

According to the ITU, nearly 90% of people in the world use mobile phones. Holy. Cow. By comparison, just 35% of us are using the Internet. That is going to change, and fast. Everyone needs a new phone after some period of time. And the next one they get is going to be connected. Just some Monday afternoon Powerpoint fodder for you all. Now back to work.