WSJ Search History/Privacy Debate

The Wall Street Journal has published a debate (well, an e-mail exchange) between Kevin Bankston, a privacy lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Markham Erickson, a lobbyist for Internet firms including Google and Yahoo, on the topic of the privacy of web search histories. Here’s a choice excerpt where Bankston takes Erickson to task about innovation vs. monetization as the true motivation behind retaining user search history records:

Erickson: …This transactional information, separated from the personal information of the user, is used by companies to improve their abilities to provide more pertinent results for the user. Don’t you think that companies should have the freedom to innovate by using transactional information to improve their products?

Bankston: Markham, you say that Internet companies don’t match up users’ personal information, yet that’s exactly what AOL stores — search logs tied that can be tied to particular user screen names, which can be matched up with your billing information. Other search engines with account-based services also can tie their search logs to your particular screen name or email address, and then there are IP addresses, cookies and other methods of tracking individual users.

Furthermore, and contrary to your suggestion, these search logs reveal much more information than directory assistance logs; they’re more like a print-out of your brain. A quick spin through the AOL logs via aolsearchdatabase.com, or a browsing of some of the more notable search histories being discussed on the bulletin board at data.aolsearchlogs.com — will demonstrate that. These logs represent the most secret hopes, deepest fears and dirtiest laundry of every user. They provide a snapshot of incredibly intimate events and ideas, often revealing personal problems, financial difficulties, medical ailments, sexual preferences, and more.

I’m all for innovation, but at what cost? Does Google really need a decade of search histories to innovate? I think that rather than innovation, what you’re talking about is monetization: data-mining all of this private information for marketing information, whether to be used internally or sold to business partners.

[via John Battelle]

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