The proposed sale of the online ad-serving company DoubleClick might raise some important privacy concerns for Internet users, according to a well-respected expert on computer privacy issues.
Lauren Weinstein, the creator of the Privacy Forum and cofounder of the California Initiative for Internet Privacy, said in a phone interview that the purchase of DoubleClick by either Microsoft or Google -- both of which were named last week by the Wall Street Journal as potential buyers -- would significantly increase the amount of data that could be aggregated about any given individual.
"The ability to correlate information about third-party sites collected using DoubleClick technology, particularly cookies," Weinstein said "with search history and other information gathered by either Microsoft or Google would be extremely powerful, and potentially very attractive as a marketing tool."
Weinstein repeatedly said that he had no reason to believe that either Microsoft or Google would try to amass individual user profiles on the basis of surfing habits and cookies. In fact, he praised Google in particular for the pro-privacy steps the company has taken recently. But he said the situation bears watching.
"Part of the problem is that we don't necessarily know what aspects of DoubleClick the companies are going after and how it will be used," Weinstein said. "When Google ads are deployed, they're fairly obviously from Google; they're boxed, they've got an 'Ads by Google' tagline, etc. On the other hand, the DoubleClick model is the opposite. You see a quick flashing of the DoubleClick server domain in status bar, but little else."
To what extent, Weinstein asked, would acquisition of vast ad-serving network like DoubleClick be integrated into the Microsoft or Google network in the same way? "Or would they use aspects of DoubleClick's network or technology to enhance what they're already doing without using exact same methodology?"
One of the more challenging aspects of the proposed deal, Weinstein said, is that the purchaser of DoubleClick will have to deal with the ad server's somewhat sketchy reputation.
"From the start," Weinstein noted, "DoubleClick has been the poster boy for third-party cookies, and when they started pulling information from widely ranging sources and compiling in it in a central database, they helped drive the opposition to cookies. There are entire Web sites devoted just to blocking DoubleClick ads."
Any company that acquires DoubleClick, said Weinstein, would do well to keep in mind DoubleClick's history and the impression the company left in people's minds. "Even if the eventual buyer wants to operate in a different way," he concluded, "it's still getting in bed with the whole package."