DoubleClick + Google: Part II: Privacy


While Microsoft has raised its concerns about antitrust considerations in the Google acquisition, a prominent privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has raised concerns about the privacy implications.


While the antitrust issues are less concerning, the privacy issues are of greater worry. The privacy concerns are present whether the acquisition is approved or not, but the proposed acquisition offers a convenient stage on which the issues can be addressed.


There are two matters of concern: (1) data that is collected without user input, and (2) data that is collected with user input. EPIC’s concerns arise from the first category, data collected and stored about a user based on their personal use and preferences, in which the user has no “personal interest” in having the data collected.


For example, if one were to go to Google and search for “information technology law,” Google would run the search, display the results, and also maintain certain data that would allow Google to display relevant ads in the future. DoubleClick has similar practices. Both firms use cookies, IP addresses, and similar practices to continue to maintain data on web browsers. EPIC and others believe that having the combined might of both firms’ information would overstep a reasonable privacy line. While that concern is something of a value judgment, it is one that deserves attention by regulators in considering the market effects of the acquisition.


The second kind of privacy concern, data provided by the user, is also of concern. Google has made very purposeful strides in an attempt to become much more than a search engine, with very successful results. Popular services include GMail and Google Calendar. New attempts to provide spreadsheet and word processing services online are also part of Google’s plan to attract as man people as possible to at least one of its services.


While useful and “free,” these types of services allow Google to maintain very personal data on hundreds of millions of people. While one could argue that this is true of Yahoo or Hotmail, Google’s success in providing virtually every service required by a typical web user increases a user’s likelihood of using the services as a bundle, and decreases the likelihood that a use will provide personal information in a diffuse manner: a little here and a little there, spread out between different services.


At it’s root, there is no problem with this. The concern is the degree of damage if there were a data breach by Google itself or hackers. If Google can maintain high levels of security and privacy protection, the problem is likely minimal. The more powerful Google becomes, however, the greater the threat.


Bottom Line: There are substantial privacy concerns in the proposed acquisition of DoubleClick by Google. Even if the merger fails to come to fruition, the data privacy practices of Google and DoubleClick are still worth examining more closely than previously thought.

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