Google Is Listening and Watching

logo-googleInternet search leader Google Inc. is preparing to steer more telephone traffic through an online command center that it acquired nearly two years ago.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company is heralding the expansion on Thursday by rebranding GrandCentral Communications as Google Voice. Google bought GrandCentral in July 2007 for an undisclosed amount.

As part of the transition to the new identity, Google is upgrading the service for GrandCentral’s current users to include automated transcriptions of voicemails and discounts on international calls.

For now, Google Voice only will be available to the people who already have been relying on GrandCentral to manage incoming calls on their office, home and mobile phone lines. Google says several hundred thousand people have GrandCentral accounts.

The free service has been closed to new users while Google retooled the technology to handle a wider audience. Within the next few weeks, Google Voice will begin welcoming people who had signed up to be on the service’s waiting list, said Vincent Paquet, a GrandCentral co-founder who is now running the service for Mountain View-based Google.

Here’s how it works: Google Voice assigns a unique phone number to each user. Calls to the Google Voice number can then be directed to any other phone line. The service also provides a hub for all messages. The online command center also enables a user to customize greetings for friends and family or ward off unwelcome callers.

“Google is all about helping you manage your information and one of the big holes right now is in the management of voice communications,” Paquet said.

This isn’t Google’s first attempt to become a bigger player in the telecommunications market. The company has also built a software platform for mobile devices, called Android, that’s designed to ensure that people on the go can easily access Google’s services when they are away from home or the office.

Google to Offer Ads Based on Interests
— Google will begin showing ads on Wednesday to people based on their previous online activities in a form of advertising known as behavioral targeting, which has been embraced by most of its competitors but has drawn criticism from privacy advocates and some members of Congress.

Perhaps to forestall objections to its approach, Google said it planned to offer new ways for users to protect their privacy. Most notably, Google will be the first major company to give users the ability to see and edit the information that it has compiled about their interests for the purposes of behavioral targeting. Like rivals such as Yahoo, it also will give users the choice to opt out from what it calls “interest-based advertising.”

Privacy advocates praised Google’s decision to give users access to their profiles.

Given Google’s position as the No. 1 seller of online ads, its approach is likely to put pressure on other companies to follow suit. Online advertising industry groups said it might help quell calls for government regulation.

But the privacy advocates also said Google needed to do more to notify people that they were being tracked.

“We think more needs to be done on how to educate people and tell them how to opt out,” said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Google’s foray into behavioral targeting may represent the most visible result so far of the company’s integration of DoubleClick, an advertising technology company that it acquired a year ago. Google bought DoubleClick, which is used by advertisers and publishers to manage their ad campaigns, to extend its advertising empire into display ads, which it sees as the next best hope to reignite its growth.

Google will use a cookie, a small piece of text that resides inside a Web browser, to track users as they visit one of the hundreds of thousands of sites that show ads through its AdSense program. Google will assign those users to categories based on the content of the pages they visit. For example, a user may be pegged as a potential car buyer, sports enthusiast or expectant mother.

Google will then use that information to show people ads that are relevant to their interests, regardless of what sites they are visiting. An expectant mother may see an ad about baby products not only on a parenting site but also, for example, on a sports or fashion site that uses AdSense or on YouTube, which is owned by Google.

The program will first be tested with a few dozen advertisers but Google plans to expand it.

Google said the approach could help advertisers reach their audiences more easily and publishers to earn more from their sites. Users will also see ads that are more relevant to their interests, the company said.

Google said that it planned to segment users along 20 categories and nearly 600 subcategories, and would not create categories for certain “sensitive” interests, including race, religion, sexual orientation or certain types of financial or health concerns. It does not plan to associate the cookie of users with search data or with information from other Google services, like Gmail.

Google won’t notify users that it has begun to show them ads based on their behavior, but users who click on the “Ads By Google” link, which appears on thousands of Web pages, will be taken to a site where the technique is explained. There, they will also be able to tap into what Google calls the Ads Preferences Manager, to see and edit the ad categories that have been associated with their browser.

“We had to find some way to open the box,” said Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel. “Users don’t know how many entities pick up data. They don’t know what happens with it. And they don’t know why Cole Haan shows me a given ad. And even if they did know, they can’t control it.”

Mr. Schwartz said that Google’s approach showed that claims by some advertising companies that giving users access to their profiles would be too onerous were not true.

Google’s entry into behavioral targeting could complicate the company’s relationship with Web publishers that use its advertising services. Many publishers are reluctant to hand over information about their users to Google if the company will in turn use it to help advertisers reach those users when they visit other sites. Most advertising networks already do this, but Google’s broad reach makes publishers particularly nervous.

At the same time, if the behavioral targeting system lets publishers get higher-priced ads, they may find it too hard to resist.

“This further extends the schizophrenic nature of the relationship between Google and publishers,” said Rob Norman, chief executive of GroupM Interaction, a unit of ad giant WPP.

Google is allowing publishers to opt out of the program.



Filed under business, computers, congress, media, News, politics, science and technology

2 responses to “Google Is Listening and Watching

  1. Google is an intelligence front for the Total Information Awareness (DARPA) operation. The Stanford boys (SRI) aren’t happy with only your Google searches (warehoused permanently), Internet clickstream data, or e-mail communications. Your phone conversations yield precious information that needs to be hoovered for the NSA government databases. When I need a laugh, I read google’s privacy policies.

  2. They’ve been coasting on lack of internet regulation – the fact that they bought a warehouse in Texas to store it all should raise some real concerns

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