Sunday, March 15, 2009

Berners-Lee Raises the Issue of Privacy

Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaking at the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of his proposal to create the web World Wide Web at Cern, gave two interesting insights. Firstly, the recognition of the importance of the mobile phone as part of the web's future, ‘In developing countries it's going to be exciting because that is the only way that a lot of people will actually get to see the internet at all.’

However, he also sounded a warning about the emergence of systems that can automatically track a web user's habits and create a detailed profile of the person, ‘That sort of snooping is really important to avoid.’

It's ironic that the same week Berners-Lee was raising warnings Google made further moves to catalog all.

Google Voice lets users hook up all phones, office, home, mobile to just one number. It also can translate spoken messages into text. Google Voice, if successful, could threaten revenues of companies big and small, like eBay, which owns Skype, telephone companies and others. Google Voice is an expanded version of a service previously known as GrandCentral.

Vincent Paquet, a co-founder of GrandCentral and now a senior product manager at Google, said that fees from Internet calls would probably play an important role in subsidizing the free service, which for now will not carry advertisements. Google, which makes software for cellphones, is already at odds with several telecommunications companies over policy issues and over who will control the quickly growing revenue generated, which are dependant on targeting users.

However Google Voice may raise with privacy advocates, regulators, and the likes of Berners-Lee as the service would allow Google, which already collects vast amounts of data about the behavior of Internet users, could now gather information on their calling habits.

Google has also come up with another way for marketers to deliver their messages to people with expandable ads. You search and a small ad will appears alongside your results. You click on the ad and it will expand to a larger, flashier format and with another click you go to the advertiser's landing page for yet more information. You have to click to activate them but remember every click is an information click.

Google are not alone in pushing the boundaries of advertising and other internet service providers such as, BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk, considering extending a behaviour-targeted advertising system created by a company called Phorm. Phorm software, called Webwise, delivers targeted adverts to consumers based on their web searches and the sort of sites they visit. They also conducted trails last year without permissions. Google has unveiled a similar behavioural targeting system. The "interest-based" ads, as Google calls them, will initially appear on YouTube and other Google partner sites Google views this as an user-oriented improvement bringing ‘more interesting’ and ‘useful’ content, Berners-Lee had a different viewpoint saying it was 'akin to opening our private mail or putting cameras in our living rooms'.

The Network Advertising Initiative's Opt-Out site lets you see ad networks that may be pulling your information. The page shows you which companies have cookies set on your computer, then offers you an option to turn them off. You can switch off Google's ad system, Yahoo's targeting program,• Microsoft's personalized ads and many others. This is done by setting a cookie in your browser so you have to repeat it if you clear your cookies and and also do it for each browser.

In twenty years we have come a significant distance from Berners-Lee’s concept but we also need to heed his words over the monster we could be potentially feeding.

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