22 November 2006

Google 2.0 and its growing power [The Mercury News]

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The Mercury News, a California newspaper, has published a long article by staff writer Elise Ackerman about Google 2.0 and its growing power. Some reflections in the article really caught my attention:

Not everyone is comfortable with Google’s growing power. “Google has this imperial digital ambition that frightens me,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on maintaining media diversity and openness. […]

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, said he is concerned that Google 2.0 could represent the first glimpse of a future dominated by a handful of giant companies whose control over vast computer networks lets them broker both digital advertising and access to digital content, possibly controlling what information and which ads users can easily locate online. […]

“What I believe is threatening to people in many fields is that we will lose the independent distribution model of the Web,” said Kahle. “That would be a horrible waste of 20 years of promising developments.” […]

For some critics, the most worrisome aspect of Google’s transformation is how it has begun to use the copious personal data it collects from users to deliver personally customized responses.

The old Google did not target advertisements to individuals. Instead it analyzed words typed into its search box to determine what ads might be most relevant.

The new Google tracks individuals who are logged into their Google accounts, noting, for example, which search results draw their attention and which ads receive their clicks.

Google accounts are required to use Google’s free online productivity applications, including Gmail, the Google calendar, Google docs and the Google notebook, as well as other services.

Chester said consumers are not prepared to deal with the kind of sophisticated data collecting and data mining that has become routine for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, as well as for smaller Internet companies. Earlier this month, the Center for Digital Democracy filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, requesting an investigation into online marketing and data collection practices.

The Mercury News wrote about the data collection practices of Internet giants in a special report published in August that found the companies’ privacy policies did not protect personal data from disclosure under certain circumstances.

“I don’t think one can trust Google, and I think the direction that Google is going in should send civil-liberty chills and privacy chills throughout the user community,” Chester said. “Google 2.0 is simply a 21st-century version of one of the media giants.”

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