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Dan Perry

Lack of use of privacy features leaves Google executive searching for answers

By Dan Perry
Associated Press / October 27, 2010

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Google’s global privacy counsel says he’s surprised by how few people choose to control what ads are steered their way — a tool which the Internet search giant launched, albeit with minimal fanfare, over the past year.

Paris-based Peter Fleischer said yesterday that the tool — which enables users to prevent targeted ads or alter the parameters used to steer ads their way — was visited by tens of thousands of people per week.

That’s a tiny fraction of the user base of the world’s largest search engine.

“I have to say I am puzzled about why more people don’t use more of the privacy controls,’’ said Fleischer, speaking at a round table with journalists at a conference in Jerusalem.

“It’s a question that we ask ourselves. . . . Is it that people feel comfortable with the status quo? Possibly.’’

He also said Google was hoping to get the word out about such privacy initiatives.

Google targets ads based on fields of interest it identifies in users, as evident in the “cookies’’ left behind on their Web browsers — virtual footprints showing which sites were visited. Thus it identifies preferences not with an individual or even an IP address — which would presumably have greater value to advertisers — but just with the particular browser.

Under the relatively new “ads preference manager,’’ a user can wipe out these cookies or alter the subject areas that were identified.

“You can say, ‘You’ve been showing me ads for sports — I actually want travel,’ ’’ Fleischer said.

The facility is reachable by searching for “ads preference manager,’’ by clicking on “ads by Google’’ buttons that appear along with certain targeted ads, and through a somewhat cumbersome process via Google’s home page.

Fleischer said that of those who use the tool, only one in seven make a change. The count is suspect, however, because Google bases it on browser use — but often more than one user has access to the same browser, and some use more than one browser.

Fleischer also addressed the challenges of launching global Internet products when societies have different privacy tendencies.

He noted the divergent reactions to its Street View project — which provides street-level images — as a prime example. In Germany, authorities had demanded that Google allow citizens to request their homes not be pictured in Street View. More than 244,000 Germans have done so. “And yet, in neighboring countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, there’s essentially no debate whatsoever,’’ Fleischer said. Street View set off a firestorm when Google admitted its researchers had collected wireless information, including entire e-mails, URLs, and passwords. “We are mortified by what happened,’’ vice president Alan Eustace said.

Dan Perry writes for the Associated Press.