December 18, 2007
Writing last month about targeted advertising, I reminded my readers that when the ground is not level, the middle ground is but a slippery slope. I got an excellent proof this week, courtesy of the search engine Ask.com.
As Miguel Helft reports (*), Ask.com is now offering AskEraser (1), a privacy feature which lets users request Ask.com to delete their search parameters. This is a genuine effort which should be encouraged. Compare it to the total disregard of Google and Facebook to users' concerns about privacy. "A Google spokesman said the company takes privacy seriously", Miguel Helft tells us. Indeed, hunters worth their salt take their prey very seriously lest they fall victim of an accident.
Yet Ask.com puts itself in a difficult position. The first thing I saw when I attempted to click on AskEraser was a request to enable cookies, those bread crums left on computers for spies to feast on (2). Needless to say very few sites, tax collectors for instance, can force me to turn on cookies and they do not rank very high on my friend list. Next, Ask.com warns me that it may take a few hours to delete my search data. Wait a second here. While far better than the 18 months generously granted by Google, this is still a few hours too many, an eternity at Internet speed. My request should be forgotten as soon as it has been answered. Searching in real privacy calls for extreme measures.
Up the slippery slope, half-way solutions are but half-hearted attempts which threatens to turn privacy into pretty packaging or worse. Remember TrustedID. To tell you whether your ID has been stolen, this service asks for your Social Security Number. Gribouille (3) who, to avoid the rain, jumped into the water, would approve.
To save privacy from prying eyes, one cannot avoid user-side software and, since nobody believe large corporations' hollow promises anymore, this software should be downloaded under the seal of an independent third party auditor. Steve Lohr and Miguel Helft report on the "Clash of the Titans" (**) between Google and Microsoft. Were I Microsoft, shouldn't I pay real attention to true privacy as a way to countermine Google's mine under my desktop software fortress? With Google Apps you must give your data away, but Microsoft has no such built-in conflict of interest.
Forget epics and heroics. It can be simply fun to slide down the slippery slope.
In hiring, it is illegal in the United States to discriminate against people over 40 (4). Yet it is common practice for companies to interview on campus. So it must be legal to target people statistically known to be under 30. Doesn't it follow it should be legal to advertise a job on Facebook, with its similar demographics? Why not use its new advertising tools to target those users who have visited perezhilton.com, skateboardshopper.com and tigerdirect.com? As probabilities go, few people over 30 will ever be caught (5). When Google unleashes its targeted advertising program, why not do the same there as on Facebook? So am I right to say it is legal to ensure no candidate over 30 will ever see your job offers?
Will a sharp-eyed reader tell me where's the flaw? Were I proven right, it would be so terribly wrong. Think of the possibilities to discriminate on race, sex, physical disabilities... Catbert (6), the evil Human Resources Director who lives at the bottom of all slopes, could hardly wait.
- (*) ...... Ask.com Puts a Bet on Privacy, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - December 11, 2007
- (**) .... Clash of the Titans, by Steve Lohr and Miguel Helft (New York Times) - December 16, 2007
- (1) see the presentation of AskEraser by Ask.com
- (2) see cookie in Wikipedia
- (3) for the adventures of this character of la Comtesse de Ségur, see la Soeur de Gribouille, in French
- (4) see the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for more details
- (5) the author cannot guarantee his statement is fully supported by the three sites mentioned. But marketers will have no problem making a better list.
- (6) see a presentation of Catbert by its creator