TOC Beware of recommendations, even from Paris Your Turn

If one needed to be convinced eprivacy is one of the most important issues of our age, this past week has delivered a nice fillip. With no disrespect for AOL user No 4417749 (see 08/15 fillip), the disclosure of her profile may inspire public spirited legislators but will not bother Bigger Brothers, used as they are to recklessly trample individual data rights. Forget the hoi polloi though. The mighty few are now revealed to share their lowly fate.

The story recounted by Floyd Norris (*) of how the board members of Hewlett Packard played spy versus spy may look like a farce out of Mad Magazine. The fact is that gods that be behave like very ordinary beings:

  • do you possess some privileged information with which to further your interests? By all means, leak it
  • do you suspect a third party database holds information on targeted individuals? By all means, take it
We have no great hope that greed will disappear any time soon. Our message is more pragmatic:
  • Individual data is and remains each individual's property, even when held in third party's databases

    Enforce this simple principle and using individual data without this individual's explicit consent becomes theft or embezzlement. End of discussion. Pretexting, i.e. getting data through a confidence game, would become an aggravating factor, rather than the main offense.
  • Doing without a database of individual data is the best way to prevent this data from being violated.

    Consultants often like to start from a clean slate to better reengineer businesses. One should do the same with corporate databases. Phone companies for example may state they need detailed central databases for billing, but the more intelligent the phones, the less convincing the argument. The reality is that the companies need such databases for marketing, a major but dispensable source of privacy violations.
Let us not belabor the HP story. Rather let the lawyers go after the "pretexters" (**), who will promptly move offshore, while sparing the central data bases for advertisers' sake.

Today I would rather go back to the equally important issue of Internet-based recommendations with a real life example, in fact the most successfull recommendation mechanism of all, I have named Google.. I have already outlined the three criteria upon which to judge a recommendation mechanism:

  • decentralization
  • responsibility
  • protest process
Google does not issue any recommendation, one may object. Indeed a Google search strives to be as objective, exhaustive and up-to-date as possible. Google itself is against censorship whenever feasible. But "search engine" is a great misnomer (1). For to present search results to the reader, one must per force rank them. With its ranking algorithm, Google is nothing but a universal recommendation mechanism.

No one controls Google but Google. As such Google is the most centralized mechanism one can conceive.
It is of course well known that a page Google rank is positively influenced by the external links which refer to it. If Google ranking used this feature alone, it would actually be a pure case of decentralization. Google would most certainly be happy to keep it that way, were not such a clean approach too easy to game. Authors need only to create external sites and link to their pages to boost their ranking. To preserve relevance in its ranking, Google is compelled to add rules, keep them secret and modify them time and again. Trying to best Google is a new profession, as lucrative for "search engine optimizers" today as rhetoric was for Greek sophists.

A Google search actually delivers two separate lists. According to the advertising contracts (see AdWords) which govern the second list, Google is paid for recommending the corresponding entries.

Because Google can still claim external links influence its ranking, responsibility is somewhat diffuse, especially since users have no knowledge of who originate the external links behind each page ranking. Ultimately Google is held responsible by its users.
Of course once established, commercial leadership benefits from incumbency. Users are both lazy and loath to change, myself among them. If Alta Vista had not confused me by mixing ads with its results, I might still be using its search service. The dramatic decline of Alta Vista's market share is proof enough that incumbency shields responsibility only to a point.

Notice that by clearly separating ads from other results, Google cleanly discharges its responsibility over ads. It is enough for a user to know Google is paid for placing the ad while the advertiser obviously remains responsible for its relevance as well as its content. Advertisers may dislike the fact that AdWords recommendation rules happen to be designed to maximize Google's profits before theirs. But it is their decision to compete for Google's recommendation.

Overall, recommendation protest processes are the weakest feature of Google.

  • Google's strategy partly rests on the secrecy surrounding its ranking algorithm. Under those circumstances, results cannot be questioned, there can be no errors and there is no process.
  • for the ads list, the bidding rules are clear enough. Unfortunately the price to be paid is linked to user clicks and such responses too can be gamed. A process exists to handle such fraud but lacks transparency (2), again in the name of denying an edge to fraudsters.
It is hard enough to find truth on the Internet without recommendations. Yet from the case of Google, one can see a universal recommendation mechanism is not easy to build, even when one forgoes evil. To judge who was the most beautiful of them all, Juno, Minerva and Venus chose Paris precisely because he too was deemed impartial (3). But as humans do so gods behave. All three goddesses immediately proceeded to bribe him and the promise of possessing Helen's celebrated beauty swayed our honest recommender into ranking Venus first without recourse.

Nobody bothered to ask Helen her own opinion, but who cares about individual privacy rights when one is a goddess or one chairs the Board?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*).....Don't Like A Director, Spy on Him, by Floyd Norris (New York Times) - September 8, 2006
  • (**)..With a Little Stealth, Just About Anyone Can Get Phone Records, by Matt Richtel (New York Times) - September 7, 2006
    • (1) actually it is a synecdoche
    • (2) An advertising model that does not click by Richard Waters (Financial Times), July 2006
    • (3) Paris was not such a bad guy, just someone a bit overwhelmed by events.
September 2006
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