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That Old Database of Intentions, It Be Growin'

By - March 10, 2008

The Web companies are, in effect, taking the trail of crumbs people leave behind as they move around the Internet, and then analyzing them to anticipate people’s next steps. So anybody who searches for information on such disparate topics as iron supplements, airlines, hotels and soft drinks may see ads for those products and services later on.

Consumers have not complained to any great extent about data collection online. But privacy experts say that is because the collection is invisible to them. Unlike Facebook’s Beacon program, which stirred controversy last year when it broadcast its members’ purchases to their online friends, most companies do not flash a notice on the screen when they collect data about visitors to their sites.

“When you start to get into the details, it’s scarier than you might suspect,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group. “We’re recording preferences, hopes, worries and fears.” (NYT link)

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Again With the High Click Fraud Stats

By - February 23, 2008

Click Forensics, a company that certainly benefits from press about high click fraud, has come out with another scary statement: Click Fraud accounts for more than 28% of clicks on content networks, which I assume means AdSense and similar types of syndicated networks. The overall rate of fraud is more than 16%, the company claims. Seeking Alpha covers it here.

The thing is, we’ve heard this before, and before that, and probably before that, and the response from Yahoo and Google is always the same: Click Forensics has got it all wrong. We catch nearly all fraud before anyone has to pay for it. All of this is overblown and misunderstood.

So why does Click Forensics keep at it? Who’s right here?

Microsoft President on Yahoo

By - February 22, 2008

Just sent this link – an internal email from Kevin Johnson, Microsoft President, to employees (and posted to Microsoft’s press area as well). Can’t find much news in it but…

Google Responds to Privacy Fears On Searchblog

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A while back I wrote a piece in which I expressed concerns about how Google might use data it has on individuals, and suggesting that I and perhaps others have hit their “Google saturation point.” The post elicited alot of comments, including Matt Cutts of Google, who promised to respond with some policy clarifications. Well, the response got stuck in his mailbox, but he just posted it now. Here is the highlight:

For example, our internal user data access agreement explicitly mentions that Google employees are not allowed to try to access data on any public figure, any employee at a particular company, or any acquaintance. To do so would be grounds for immediate termination. So for the case that you’re worried about (running a start-up using Google’s tools), we have mechanisms and policies in place that specifically protect your privacy in that situation.

But…this allows them, from what I can tell, to access information on anyone who is not a “public figure, any employee at a particular company, or any acquaintance.”

The way it’s worded, it seems to be pretty easy to get around. “Hey Joe, do you know Battelle?” “No, who’s he?” “Never mind, can you just go check out his files for me?”


Google Slams Microsoft

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In a blog post that will be its only response, according to an email I was sent, Google fires pretty much everything it has at the Microsoft/Yahoo deal.

Could Microsoft now attempt to exert the same sort of inappropriate and

illegal influence over the Internet that it did with the PC? While the

Internet rewards competitive innovation, Microsoft has frequently sought to

establish proprietary monopolies — and then leverage its dominance into

new, adjacent markets.

Could the acquisition of Yahoo! allow Microsoft — despite its legacy of

serious legal and regulatory offenses — to extend unfair practices from

browsers and operating systems to the Internet? In addition, Microsoft plus

Yahoo! equals an overwhelming share of instant messaging and web email

accounts. And between them, the two companies operate the two most heavily

trafficked portals on the Internet. Could a combination of the two take

advantage of a PC software monopoly to unfairly limit the ability of

consumers to freely access competitors’ email, IM, and web-based services?

Policymakers around the world need to ask these questions — and consumers

deserve satisfying answers.

This hostile bid was announced on Friday so there is plenty of time for

these questions to be thoroughly addressed. We take Internet openness,

choice and innovation seriously. They are the core of our culture. We

believe that the interests of Internet users come first — and should come

first — as the merits of this proposed acquisition are examined and

alternatives explored.

Q&A With Marissa Mayer

By - January 31, 2008

Venturebeat has an interesting Q&A with Marissa up, in it she points toward social search as a major area of development for Google.

She hints Gmail may be used to identify your friends, using their search history to influence search results for you and those in your social network. While this network would likely first be built on Gmail contacts, Marissa wouldn’t rule out importing friends from third-party networks down the road.

I think Google is struggling to figure out its approach here. Should it build a “traditional social network” like Facebook or Orkut? Should it simply be a directory, and provide a platform instead (like Open Social)? What about indexing and crawling all this social content? Will it prefer its own content?

The plot thickens.

The Government Should Get Into the Payment Game

By - January 27, 2008


Do you have government-issued payment technology? A tracking device that is tied to your bank account or credit card, that allows you to pay for stuff without the hassle of transaction friction? Chances are, if you are a commuter, you do. I’ve got one in my car, an image of it is above.

I love my FasTrak. It lets me whiz through the numerous bridge toll booths dotting the Bay Area. But recently, FasTrak did something very important – it cut a deal with the San Francisco Airport, a deal that allows folks with FasTrak to pay for airport parking using their selfsame FasTrak device.

Pretty obvious, no? Well, no, in fact. I’m sure cuttting this deal was fraught with all the red tape and political hazards typical of local government.

But it got me thinking. I have a FasTrak device in my car. I have connected that device to a trusted payment service (a credit card, in my case). Why shouldn’t the local government leverage that fact, and get into the payment biz? It’s a great business (just ask MasterCard or Amex), it pays well, and it’s a service I’d trust FasTrak to get right, because they’ve built significant brand equity with me over the past few years.

We have a major budget crisis here in California, and everyone is pointing fingers, arguing about which programs should get cut, and hoping that we can gamble our way out of the problem (no, really). What about the government *actually providing a valuable service,* one we’d all be willing to pay a bit for?

I know, I know, it’d cut into the credit card companies’ business, but, jesus, tough shit, guys. California is in the pole position here, and should leverage it. Miniaturize the FasTrak, add a modal button (ie, when I press on it, it activates) and some security software, and then roll it out at grocery stores, gas stations, shit, everywhere you can buy a lottery ticket for that matter. The brilliant angle is this: while tons of retailers have tried this, no one wants a walled garden approach (ie, I can use this key fob for gas, that key fob for Safeway, etc.). The government can set an open standard, create a development platform…you all know the rest.

And take a 1-2.5% cut from retailers. I, for one, would love it.

I Disagree, Google

By - January 24, 2008

Google has come out with a policy around political ads on its sites, and I commend it for transparency and setting a level playing field. But I disagree with the policy. Why? Well, to quote a portion of its post on the policy:

No attacks on an individual’s personal life. Stating disagreement with or campaigning against a candidate for public office, a political party, or public administration is generally permissible. However, political ads must not include accusations or attacks relating to an individual’s personal life, nor can they advocate against a protected group. So, “Crime rates are up under Police Commissioner Gordon” is okay, but “Police Commissioner Gordon had an affair” is not.

I understand why Google took this course, but I have to say, it’s part of an ongoing sanitization of our political life that, in the end, pushes all of politics toward whitewashing and dishonesty. It’s far easier to say “no personal attacks” than it is to say “no false statements”. But in my mind, accuracy is far more important in public debate than some subjective sense of what constitutes a personal attack. These are public figures, after all, and let’s be honest: we vote for folks we feel we can trust. How will we know them if we don’t know the truth? Sure, scandalous stuff is often scurrilous, but the first amendment is clear on speech: all speech, in particular, all public speech, must be allowed, so that the real truth can be assessed by an informed public. We don’t need Google, or anyone else, sanitizing it for us.

Just my two cents.

No, Google Won't Buy the NYT. But Google.Org Could

By - January 23, 2008

I’ve argued in the past that we need new models for quality journalism, and that it’s the responsibility of companies like Google and Yahoo to help our culture get there. One might be to run our best journalistic enterprises as trusts, the way they do in the UK and elsewhere. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years (including a piece in RealClearMarkets yesterday) that Google might buy the Times. I don’t think that’s a good idea. But if did, and then ran the paper as a trust, well, that’d buy a lot of brand burnish amongst a very important set of influential folks, just as massive privacy and monopoly issues are rearing their heads…