July 14, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Google balances privacy, reach

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identifiable information. For example, Google does not correlate Gmail accounts with users' searches.

Google's Desktop Search, an application that lets users search for personal files and Web history stored locally on their computer, also created a stir when it was launched last year. Privacy advocates worried that someone with access to a user's computer could easily search for sensitive data.

A free version of Google's Desktop Search for businesses has an option that allows users to require a password to access it. The free consumer version of it does not.

Other privacy concerns were raised with Google's Web Accelerator, downloadable software for broadband users that was designed to speed access to Web pages by serving up cached or compressed copies of Web sites from Google's servers. However, the service does not really retain any more data than a user's Internet service provider can.

Underpinning many of the privacy concerns is the longevity of Google's data retention.

The log files created during Web searches, and which don't personally identify the user, are kept for as long as the data "is useful," Wong said. She did not give any time frame or elaborate.

"Overall, the issues with Google are not any different from the issues you have with Yahoo, Microsoft and others."
--Danny Sullivan, editor, Search Engine Watch

Google is able to link log file data, cookies and Google accounts to help it identify attempts to manipulate Web site ranking on its search pages, help track down originators of denial-of-service attacks against Web sites, and provide improvements to services in general, Wong said.

Concerned Googlers can either choose not to register for Google services or use two browsers, one for their Web searches and another for Gmail and other Google services.

For the more paranoid there are anonymizing proxy networks, such as the EFF's Tor, that bounce Internet communication through a series of routers that encrypt and decrypt it so that the origination and destination cannot be traced.

"Before you Google for something, think about whether you want that on your permanent record," Bankston advised. "If not, don't Google, or take steps so the search can't be tied back to you."

Google is no DoubleClick
In fairness, the level of anxiety hasn't come close to what online ad network DoubleClick faced in the late 1990s. DoubleClick became the subject of a Federal Trade Communication lawsuit for its attempt to combine offline and online consumer data. It settled federal and state suits and eventually phased out its Internet ad profiling service.

In a question-and-answer session during Google's media day in May Schmidt addressed the trade-off between privacy issues and offering better services.

"Our general philosophy on those things is very much to allow people to opt in," Schmidt said. "There are always options to not use that set of technology and remain anonymous with respect to the functionality that you're using on Google."

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner opined: "Overall, I think the privacy concerns are probably overblown."

Search engines have reached a plateau in their ability to serve up the best results, Weiner said, adding that tracking users' ongoing searches will lead to improvements.

"Have search engines gotten to the point where they have developed enough trust with consumers in order to get them to give up some of their privacy?" he asked rhetorically. "At some point there's a leap of faith that needs to occur."

And it's not as though Google is the only company asking Web surfers to make that leap, said Danny Sullivan editor of Search Engine Watch. "Overall, the issues with Google are not any different from the issues you have with Yahoo, Microsoft and others. They tend to get singled out, and unfairly, in my view," Sullivan said. "They're the biggest, and they make a big target for someone to take a swing at. It's not that the issues are not important. It's that they are applicable to the search industry" as a whole.

Trust is the key. As software industry analyst Stephen O'Grady wrote in his Tecosystems blog late last year: "Google is nearing a crossroads in determining its future path. They can take the Microsoft fork--and face the same scrutiny Microsoft does, or they can learn what the folks from Redmond have: Trust is hard to earn, easy to lose and nearly impossible to win back."

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