Monday, 16 March 2009

Google's behaviour based advertising and how to avoid it

In the past week Google announced that it was going to make 'ads more interesting' by launching a behavioural advertising programme that will monitor browsing patterns and deliver personalised and tailored adverts to surfers. It sees this as a much better way of making advertising more relevant to consumers, and it will certainly be more advantageous to advertisers in that their messages will hopefully compete for the right eyeballs.

However, not everyone is happy with this. The CDD (Centre for Digital Democracy) raised flags at the partnership between Google and DoubleClick which preceded this current action back in January. The real sticking point is that Google has decided to make this an 'opt-out' rather than an opt-in policy. Some have seen this service as a little intrusive and feel like it encroaches on their anonymity (a somewhat problematic concept given how browsers actually function but never mind), and have been keen to opt out. Follow this link to opt out.

You might want to think of this change of direction as having a little in common with the Phorm debacle that raised it's ugly head about a year ago. Phorm were proposing much the same thing as Google, but they were planning on working at the server side for companies like BT and Virgin Media until public feeling turned a little hostile. This was also initially an opt-out service.

If you would rather not have personalised adverts targeted at you Google has provided a solution - one which is far from ideal. In order to block the service you can download a cookie from Google. Of course, this is less than ideal if you regularly run anti-spyware/malware software which regularly cleans cookies from your browser. You'd have to reinstall the cookie each time you run the software or create a software dependent exception.

If you want to download the cookie then follow this link. It works on all RC versions of Firefox from 1.5+. I'm not sure if it works on the Mozilla Flock browser which is essentially a reskinned Firefox, but I can't see why it wouldn't. Mac user running Mozilla's Camino might want to try the same link. Google have created a version of the browser cookie for Safari users, but they do advise that Safari comes prefigured to block most cookies by default anyway - far from ideal.

Of course, many long term users of browsers like Firefox (this also works for Flock), Camino and Opera can bypass the problems associated with Google's privacy creep by installing Ad Block Plus or using the inbuilt 'content blocker' found in the settings. The use of Adblock has the added advantage of enabling web-pages to render a little quicker and saves battery life on laptops if you regularly visit sites with Flash animation embedded.

This is just another example of Google gathering more and more personal data on its users...


I noticed an improved Firefox extension was being discussed in The Register this week. They claim that 'privacy crusader Christopher Soghoian is offering a single Firefox plug-in that maintains your opt-out on 27 separate behavioral ad networks' and that you can get that from here. There are implications to using this plug-in so be sure to read the author's blog.

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