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Google and Microsoft Defend Practices at Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference

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WASHINGTON, June 3, 2009 – Officials from Google and Microsoft denied that they were creating privacy-invading user profiles of internet users, speaking at the 2009 Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference at George Washington University here.

Online advertising and internet “cookies” designed to collect user data were center to this discussion at the conference. Google’s Jane Horvath said that the search engine giant is not “logging… or creating profiles at all,” when asked about data collection.

Mike Hintze of Microsoft said that Microsoft collects “similar data” to Google. When a consumer engages in internet search queries and “interacts with services we offer, … certain information is collected and certain demographic information is collected.”

But Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy decried the “global system [that] has emerged [and which] is designed to collect this data …whose goal it is to shape our attitude and behavior.” Chester said that Google and others are promoting and practicing techniques that may “bypass the conscious mind and work on the emotions” as it engages in online advertising.

It “goes back many, many, years before this was a hot issue,” Hintze said of targeted advertising. “It’s happened since catalogues and direct mail. Online is not all that different either.” He said that e-commerce was responsible for between four and 10 times as much revenue because of targeted advertisements.

Horvath says that Google and other search engines are not the only people who advertise. She challenged the audience to “clear all your cookies, go to The New York Times” and look at the cookies that the media giant placed on the user’s computer.

Several panelists objected to this sort of cookie-tracking activity.

“Most people don’t realize what’s being taken, how it’s being used, who has access to it, or how long is it being kept,” said Amira Fazlullah of USPIRG. “There is a value to privacy that’s priceless,” says Fazlullah.

Said Jessica Rich of the Federal Trade Commission: “consumers don’t really know what’s happening with their data.”

Chester said that the ignorance to the power of advertising of this sort represents a “truly…frightening vision.”

Growing developments to ensure consumer privacy involve “opt-in” and “opt-out” privacy practices. The more well-known and well-practiced “opt-out” features are currently in place by Google, said Horvath.

Microsoft deployed “layered privacy notices,” or a privacy mode on its web browser Internet Explorer, said Hintze. Hintze says that “as we develop into third party [advertising] networks,” Microsoft attempts to keep privacy issues in mind.

Some on the panel decried the “opt-out” approach, particularly as it relates to the use of software cookies. A universal “opt-in” was discussed, but it might mean that consumers would have to take the initiative if they wanted to receive advertisements to them.

Google criticized this because the company “would have to authenticate users to have an opt-in service” – and that might involve further invasions of privacy, says Horvath.

Chester said drastic changes were necessary in the online media marketplace. It is “not just about advertisements. Social media marketing… is really about social media surveillance.”

The FTC’s Rich said that she personally takes the approach of a “privacy pragmatist,” and said: “I am not particularly bothered myself, [although] I know many people that are…. I do engage in avoidance.”

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