Google Tests New Ad-Serving System with Privacy Protections (but if a tree falls in the woods with no one around…)

Google is testing new ad-serving technology with added privacy protections:

In our ad-serving tests, we’re introducing an opt-out mechanism so people can opt out of the test ad-serving cookie if they wish. In addition, we’re going to experiment with ways the industry could provide improved transparency for consumers and providing users with additional controls over the data gathered by ad servers. Some of the ideas we’re exploring include:

  • using “crumbled” cookies, so that the data typically associated with one unique identifying number or “cookie ID” will be broken up among multiple different cookies and diffuse the ad history of individual users;
  • providing better forms of notice within ads, to help users understand who is serving the ads they see, and what data is being collected; and
  • giving users the ability to provide feedback to us about the ads they like and don’t like.

My hunch is that this is to help stave off the criticisms of the impending merger with DoubleClick. Whatever the reasons, they’re proposing some very positive changes in the ways Internet users are often tracked from site-to-site without even knowing about it. In fact, Google has created some very impressive FAQs about the privacy issues surrounding this experiment, including detailed instructions on how to block and remove cookies from one’s browser. They even provide a way for users to completely op-out of having these cookies placed on their browser (unfortunately, though, the default is to allow the cookies, and they go to some length to “recommend” that users not change this setting to protect their privacy):

Cookie opt out

I’m thrilled to see these kind of actions. But something keeps nagging me in the back of my mind: how do users find out about it? There is a small side-bar link to these pages from Google’s Privacy Center, but these policies and protections deal with Google ads being served to users on non-Google properties, so how would a user know about these features and the ability to opt-out if an AdSense ad appears on sites like Digg.com or Wookiepedia?

Your privacyI have a simple solution: Add a “Your Privacy” tag to every advertisement served by Google, on every website that users AdSense. This would link to these new privacy policy pages to help make it explicit that Google cookies are being used to track users — even on non-Google properties. And it would provide a direct link to the cookie-opt out page, giving users the option — each and every time they are served a Google ad — to decide whether they want to be tracked or not.

Again, I’m thrilled at many of the recent steps taken by Google and other search engines to help protect user privacy. But more can — and must — be done it give users full knowledge and full control over the flow of their personal information and browsing habits online.

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