John C. Abell

Google’s unhealthy cookie habit

Feb 22, 2012 15:41 UTC

Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar last week — and this time it really does have some explaining to do.

The search giant, which derives some 97 percent of its revenues from advertising, thought it would be all right to circumvent some protections incorporated into Apple’s Safari browser so that it could better target its ads. By intentionally bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser — and, as Microsoft has now asserted, Internet Explorer — Google has decided for all of us that our Web activity will be more closely tracked. They opted us in, without asking. And without a way for us to opt out. (We didn’t even know about it until the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off this last Thursday.)

On the merits, this is a pretty big deal. A class action has already been filed, and an FTC probe is almost certain. That the no-tracking settings were circumvented (and secretly) makes it easier to infer that even Google worried it might be touching a third rail. It says it wasn’t, that its intent was only to discern whether Google users were logged into Google services and that the enabling of advertising cookies was inadvertent.

But the atmospherics are horrible:

    Google is the company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t be Evil.” Google and Apple already have a pretty tortured relationship. Secretly deploying an exploit for an Apple product isn’t exactly a good-faith gesture. Google only a month ago got some props for putting the best face possible on a big change in its privacy rules under which it now aggregates information gathered about you from one Google service with that collected from all the others you might use.

That last point in particular frames the bigger problem: We, the general Internet-using public, have an innately uneasy relationship with the “free” services we use. We vaguely understand that we are being spied upon — how else could Amazon and Netflix make such darn good suggestions? — and more or less see it as a reasonable trade-off. Then we try not to think about all the consequences of this new world order.

But this relationship is based on trust and on the ability of the big companies, that for immense profit bathe themselves in ever-deepening pools of our not-so-personal details, to keep convincing us that it’s all good. Some of them — like Google – take in sums approaching $40 billion a year, while others fancy themselves $100 billion companies — like Facebook — based on this uniquely digital-age business model: We are not only the customers, but the product.

Trolling for a tech showdown

Feb 10, 2012 20:18 UTC

The scene: A federal courtroom in Tyler, Texas.

The drama: A lawsuit by a patent troll who said he owned the rights to the “interactive web.” The troll says he’s owed some back rent for owning the Web we all use every day.

Dramatis persona: Tim Berners-Lee. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He invented the World Wide Web.

Oh, to have been in Tyler. It was the stage for a showdown in one of the most bizarre patent troll cases ever, pitting (metaphorically if not in fact) expert witness Berners-Lee against some punk who wanted to make his name by taking out a very, very big gun in a shootout. The plaintiff, Eolas, claimed it owned patents that entitled it to royalties from anyone whose website used “interactive” features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas’s owner, Chicago biologist Michael Doyle, was that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web.”

IPOverload: Facebook goes public

Feb 1, 2012 22:12 UTC

The least suspenseful waiting game in Silicon Valley is now over, thank heavens. Facebook, which began as a decidedly private Harvard hangout, has begun the process of going absolutely, totally, unabashedly public.

Facebook filed for an initial public offering with the SEC Wednesday, which means we have the first raw glimpse of its financials. Advertising makes up 85 percent of its $3.7 billion in annual revenue. And it took in $1 billion of income in 2011. For more of the best data points, see my colleague Anthony De Rosa’s rundown.

Facebook is synonymous with the Internet in many ways: It boasts more than 10 percent of the world’s population as active users and has realizable ambitions to be the preeminent vetting service on the Net, making a “Like” as powerful and capricious as Caesar’s opposable thumb.