Google’s interest-based advertising looks like Phorm/Webwise/spyware

Google will replace their current Adsense advertising with Phorm-style interest-based advertising with effect from 1st April 2009.  They’re advising website owners to update their privacy policy becuase of this, but I don’t think that doing that is sufficient.

Their current Adsense ads show advertisements that are based on the content of the site on which the ads are shown.  For example, on this site the ads might include F1 race tickets or karting companies.  Google’s new Interest-based ads will show ads based on websites that the person has previously visited.  So, when someone visits a site that contains Google ads, Google assumes that the person is interested in the content of that site and records that person’s interest in it.  When that person visits another site with Google ads, Google will show ads based on the database of what Google considers interesting to that person.

This sounds like the Phorm (AKA Webwise) privacy scandal that BT and other ISPs got into before.  Basically, they installed equipment an advertising company’s equipment that monitored websites their customers visited, and served adverts related to those previous websites.  The Information Commissioner (Data Protection Act) and the EU law enforcers were concerned that privacy was being breached.  It seems that BT (and maybe Virgin and TalkTalk) are going to introduce this spyware-like technology at some point in the future.

Getting back to Google, they sent an email to website owners saying “your privacy policy will need to reflect the use of interest-based advertising”.  Well, I don’t have a privacy policy because I don’t collect personal data.  I’m certainly not going to spend time and money getting one drawn up so Google can earn more money by placing interest-based ads on my site; ads that might have nothing to do with the content of my site.

And having a privacy policy for a website is not sufficient legally, in my opinion.  In order to view the privacy policy, someone has to visit my website.  By visiting my website, their visit is logged by Google before the person has a chance to decide whether they want that data recorded or not.  So, in effect, data about their visit is collected without their consent, and that’s illegal in the UK.

Quite simply, this whole thing worries me.  It sounds like spyware.  After all, people’s browsing habits are being tracked without their express permission, and that to me is spyware.  So, come 1st April, my site will no longer be showing Google ads.  That leaves more space for me to add things that my visitors actually want to see.

Comments welcome, for or against.

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