Google, DoubleClick Throw Punches in Privacy War

NEW YORK Google’s Washington lobbyist, Alan Davidson, bumped into Jeff Chester, founder of the pro-privacy Center for Digital Democracy, in a hallway during a conference in May. Davidson asked him, “Why are you upset with us? We think we have good privacy practices.” He also noted that Google wrote about $3 billion in checks to mostly “small players” who participate in its AdSense program—a considerable “democratization” of media.

Chester, referring to Google’s dominant role in online advertising, replied, “Do we really want one company controlling the bankroll for online content? What if you say, ‘$3 billion is too much, we’ll cut it to $2 billion?'”

It was a telling face-to-face moment in the online privacy war that is gripping marketers and consumers as they await completion of the Google-DoubleClick merger. Marketers are worried that their advertising will end up being controlled by one giant online media monopoly. Consumers are concerned that a combination of the companies’ data will end what little privacy they have left. Google already controls 75.6 percent of paid search ad spend, per eMarketer, New York.

Several privacy-rights organizations, such as CDD and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, filed papers with the Federal Trade Commission this summer, asking that the merger be scrapped. They argue that data from DoubleClick (names, e-mail addresses, etc.), combined with Google’s info on what people search for, its photographs of their neighborhoods, and its e-mail, instant messaging and shopping activity, would give the company access to a seemingly limitless amount of information on individuals.

Privacy rights advocates—such as EPIC and CDD—have been joined by AT&T and Microsoft. And an exec at WPP Group said he expected the agency network to oppose the deal.

Google and DoubleClick each berated their critics last week. “EPIC and others have so far failed to identify any practice that does not comply with accepted privacy standards, and their complaints are unsupported by the facts and the law. Google aggressively protects consumer privacy, and user trust is essential,” said a Google representative.

DoubleClick called EPIC’s complaint “misleading.” “The notion that data collected by DoubleClick could be matched to search data in the possession of an acquiring company presupposes some common linkage point,” said a rep. “DoubleClick does not have the right data to enable such a linkage.”

The central issue is that even though both companies have policies or practices that “blind” them to the identities of consumers surfing the Web, the potential for abuse is still there. For instance, in August 2006, AOL published the search terms used by 20 million of its “anonymous” users. Within a few hours, The New York Times was able to identify User No. 4417749 as 62-year-old Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Ga. She had searched for “numbfingers,” “60 single men,” “dog that urinates on everything” and “landscapers in Lilburn, Ga.”

Simply put, although Google and DoubleClick promise never to abuse the data they want to combine, almost everyone else agrees the merger would make such abuse potentially possible.

“There is nothing that Google or DoubleClick have ever said or done that infers that this could happen,” said Robb Norman, CEO at WPP’s GroupM Interaction in New York. “But the binary issue is that dictatorships are bad. If circumstances prevail that allow even the best-intentioned person to put the data in hands that could be used for other purposes, it’s a bad thing.”

He added, “There’s a view that certain uses combining search and display advertising could make the marketplace less competitive [by] corralling data in the market to an unacceptable extent.”

On June 27, a consortium of European consumer privacy groups also filed with the FTC to oppose the merger. “It would be practically impossible for users after the merger to avoid all Web sites serving Google/DoubleClick ads,” they wrote. “A single company will obtain and exploit enormous amounts of personal information about users by building profiles of consumers as they engage in searches.”

They could receive a sympathetic hearing. FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras in February criticized advertisers for not understanding how their online ads are sometimes channeled through spyware [Brandweek, Feb. 5]. And on June 14, the FTC called for “stepped-up cooperation” between international law enforcement bodies on privacy protections.

FTC watchers said the privacy issue might be too “hypothetical” for the FTC to act upon. All the same, said Craig Cardon, a partner at Sheppard Mullin in San Francisco, who specializes in advertising litigation, “the problem is that [Google is] so large that even them just playing with something can be scary.”

Google’s Davidson said concerns like that were misplaced: “We’re not really the bad actors in this space. Microsoft and Yahoo are much worse than us.”