Friday, September 12, 2008

Search Insider: The Search Industry's Private Parts

The Search Industry's Private Parts

GOOGLE'S CHROME BROWSER LAUNCHED LAST week amid the dramatic fanfare you'd expect from the debut of a Google browser. Unlike recent, less successful launches (Cuil comes to mind), Chrome's been well received. I myself am pretty happy with it, although my Search Insider colleague David Berkowitz switched back to Firefox less than a day after switching forward.

The subject of this column, however, isn't the browser's many nifty features or the intricacies of the One Bar. It's privacy. Google touted Chrome's attention to privacy by pointing to an "incognito" mode that allows users to surf, well, incognito. Unfortunately for Google, the response from privacy advocates has been, so what? First of all, it's not a unique feature; Microsoft has its own version with InPrivate Browsing. Second, it's not a new feature. Firefox settings can easily be tuned to not accept cookies or store history and to clear private data each time you close the browser. Third, it's not a complete feature; ISPs can still access everything you do online.

The incognito mode turned out to be the least of Google's privacy worries after ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick uncovered a sinister-sounding clause in Chrome's Terms of Service: "a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services."

The clause was removed not long after RWW's spotlight shone on it (coincidence?), and Matt Cutts of Google and David Pogue of The New York Times both reasserted an absence of conspiracies relating to the browser.

Big Brother concerns aside, Google has historically been pretty protective of its users' data, as evidenced by its stance toward the Justice Department back in 2006. And it's worth noting that privacy concerns tend to resemble cotton candy: a lot of excitement, but not a lot of substance. RWW, for example, mentions that last year there was a similar outcry over Google Docs -- yet the service is still going strong.

This phenomenon, of outcry unaccompanied by action, is also seen on the data log front: Google announced this week that it was halving the length of time before it anonymized search queries, from 18 months to 9 months. Despite outraged comments demanding to know why Google has to store the data at all, I have yet to hear of a single instance of users changing their search habits due to this issue. If you know of any, please let me know.

Because they typically lack consequences, I've been quite intrigued to see another privacy issue -- that of NebuAd's "deep-packet inspection" -- resulting in serious commercial backlash. After the company's CEO left and its customers pulled the plug, NebuAd strategists decided they were "voluntarily" holding off on deploying their ISP-based behavioral targeting platform until Congress was satisfied with its privacy standards. (One wonders, without customers, to whom they would have deployed.)

NebuAd's troubles should be a source of comfort to Chrome conspiracy theorists. After all, it shouldn't matter that incognito mode doesn't protect you from ISPs, if the ISPs themselves are unwilling to track your behavior. And it's gratifying to know that, faced with pressure from consumers and government and customers, there are lines that can't be crossed.

Now it's time to see whether Chrome can live up to the rest of its hype.

Kaila Colbin blogs for VortexDNA, whose technology can improve relevance for search engines, ecommerce sites, or any other recommendation service.

Search Insider for Friday, September 12, 2008:

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