The Guardian On AOL Search Data

From the UK, where surveillance is at once more common and more worrisome (or more worried about in public, at least) than here: They know all about youpdf

In March this year, a man with a passion for Portuguese football, living in a city in Florida, was drinking heavily because his wife was having an affair. He typed his troubles into the search window of his computer. “My wife doesnt love animore,” he told the machine. He searched for “Stop your divorce” and “I want revenge to my wife” before turning to self-examination with “alchool withdrawl”, “alchool withdrawl sintoms” (at 10 in the morning) and “disfunctional erection”. On April 1 he was looking for a local medium who could “predict my futur”.

But what could a psychic guess about him compared with what the world now knows? This story is one of hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands, revealed this month when AOL published the details of 23m searches made by 650,000 of its customers during a three-month period earlier in the year. The searches were actually carried out by Google – from which AOL buys in its search functions.

[…] All of this information is stored. Google identifies every computer that connects to it with an implant (known as a cookie) which will not expire until 2038. If you also use Gmail, Google knows your email address – and, of course, keeps all your email searchable. If you sign up to have Google ads on a website, then the company knows your bank account details and home address, as well as all your searches. If you have a blog on the free blogger service, Google owns that. The company also knows, of course, the routes you have looked up on Google maps. Yahoo operates a similar range of services.

All this knowledge has been handed over quite freely by us as users. It is the foundation of Google’s fortune because it allows the company to target very precisely the advertising it sends in our direction. Other companies have equally ambitious plans: an application lodged on August 10 with the US Patent & Trademark Office showed that Amazon is hoping to patent ways of interrogating a database that would record not just what its 59 million customers have bought – which it already knows – or what they would like to buy (which, with their wish lists, they tell the world) but their income, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. The company, of course, already knows who we are and where we live.

[…] This is knowledge beyond the dreams of any secret police in history. Earlier this year Google fought a lawsuit to keep a week’s worth of random search data out of the hands of the US government, but other search companies have handed over their data without complaint and nobody has yet discovered what deals have been struck between search engines and the Chinese government. China is generally thought of as attempting to censor the internet, which it does; search engines that do business in China must censor their own results if they are to succeed. But the real power for a totalitarian government is no longer just censorship. It is to allow its citizens to search for anything they want – and then remember it.

No western government, so far as we know, has gone that far. But if one ever does, it will know where the information is kept that will tell it almost everything about almost everyone. This morning, as I logged in to Googletalk, to chat with my sister, the programme silently upgraded itself. “Would you like to show friends what music you’re playing now?” it asked.

Some recent Furdlog postings here

See also Technology lets ads get personal

Anomaly, Or An Accurate Reflection Of Reality?

As we see increasing development of the multiplayer game as something more that just a game, here’s a pending conflict that’s going to have to get resolved: In Game World, Cheaters Proudly Prosperpdf

Here’s the ugly, sometimes dirty, often-overlooked truth in games: Everyone cheats. In many instances, cheating is built into the game. It’s a multimillion-dollar industry, legally sanctioned. Well, at least most of it.

You can flip through magazines such as Tips & Tricks, which boasts of its “Cheat Code Blowout!” Or buy 150-page strategy guides, the Cliffs Notes of gamers, which last year drew $67 million in sales, according to the NPD Group. Or log on to, a Wikipedia for the gaming set, the latest in the growing crop of sites that promote cheating in games.

“A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for,” W.C. Fields once said. Never mind Sophocles’ approach: “I would prefer even to fail with honor than win by cheating.” When it comes to games, all bets are off.

[…] But what constitutes cheating? Is cheating less objectionable when you don’t have to pay for it? As in, looking up a code on the Internet, where it’s free, versus dropping$16.99 for a copy of the strategy guide for “Madden NFL 2007”? When roaming the online “World of Warcraft,” is cheating warranted so long as the only one affected is you? For example, buying weapons on eBay instead of earning them in the game?

Is cheating ever okay?

“It’s like lying. We all agree that lying is bad, but we all do it anyway, and there are definitely different degrees in which you should do it. Like lying to hold back a surprise party,” says Jason Blake, 23. For tips on “Halo 2,” Blake scours the forums on

[…] To cheat way back when was to figure out how to keep your character alive and finish the game. To cheat now is to unlock doors and expand the breadth of your game.

“It’s not just cheating, really,” says Sam Kennedy, the mastermind behind the new”It’s trying to get more out of the game, kind of like buying a special edition DVD where you get extra stuff.”

I am reminded of this exchange in the “The Big Chill:”

Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

Heading Down The Slippery Slope

Will we develop privacy policies in time to arrest the slide into a dataveillance society? Unlocking Fingerprintspdf

In the coming months, a wave of government initiatives could start making such high-tech methods of identification commonplace — beginning with the replacement this fall of federal employee IDs. Similar cards are planned for transportation workers, first responders and visitors to the United States.

Packed with biometric data such as fingerprints and containing a computer chip with room to expand the amount of information stored, the new IDs represent a potential boon to technology companies eyeing an estimated $8 billion in identity-related contracts. Firms such as BearingPoint Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp. have set up showcase identity labs, pulling technology from different companies into turnkey operations. Hundreds of smaller companies, down to manufacturers of plastic cards, are vying for part of the market.

The biggest business opportunity still looms: Driver’s licenses, which are due for a retooling under new federal laws.

[…] In an era of chronic concern over terrorism and anxiety over immigration, the business of determining who is who has become increasingly urgent. But it is not without controversy. Americans have long resisted the idea of a national ID card, for example. The growing sophistication of computer databases and networks has heightened privacy concerns — as have data breaches, from the theft or loss of government computers to AOL’s online posting of 36 million keyword searches conducted by hundreds of thousands of subscribers. If the pool of government programs using the new identity technology gets large enough and the amount of information collected gets detailed enough, “there will be a lot of pressure for these programs to converge,” creating a de facto national identity system, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Use of a new government standard may prompt the private sector to follow. The banking, retailing and health-care industries are monitoring the federal initiatives, ready to apply stricter identity standards when dealing with their employees and customers. In an online world, the technology could also be used to establish that two people who never meet in person really are who they say they are.

Ads As A Strategy To Reduce Textbook Costs?

That’s the plan, it appears. That old “first sale” doctrine in textbooks is upsetting a lot of folks, so how to transition to electronic texts becomes the $64 question: Words of Wisdom vs. Words From Our Sponsor

Writers have written lovingly of the tactile pleasures provided by printed books and newspapers, but no one has paid particular tribute to the voluptuous four-color, four-pound textbook. Now being replaced by weightless electronic versions, the bound artifact remains forlorn and unloved. In any ceremony marking its demise, college students may want to throw a fusillade of stones at its coffin. Expensive texts, after all, have broken many student budgets.

A $4 billion-a-year business cannot change fundamentally overnight; the shift from printed to electronic textbook will take years. In the meantime, a small publisher of college textbooks, Freeload Press of St. Paul, seeks to take advantage of this flux with a new concept: providing free e-textbooks to students. The catch? Ads are inserted within the text.

[…] Asked to select a textbook on the basis of price over quality, professors will resist, as they properly should. Professors, however, are not blind to the shocking prices of new textbooks. Nor are they deaf to the complaining voices of their students. They know that students increasingly buy used textbooks, and that this in turn affects the prices on new texts that sit unsold on the shelves.

J. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said publishers report that sales of a new textbook edition evaporate almost completely after one year, when used copies flood the market.

Authors say that this drives publishers to shorten the intervals between revisions and to raise prices to try to recoup development costs from a shrinking base of new-book buyers — then the cycle repeats.

The system is broken. Its replacement, however, should not entail a hasty embrace of advertising and substandard contents, but rather adoption of electronic versions of the best textbooks in their field, at much-reduced prices and free of advertising.

I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever sold a textbook that I bought; maybe it’s a question of making textbooks something one wants to keep? I’m not sure exactly what’s “broken,” but I doubt that the answer is going to be found in e-texts alone….

Time For Some New Spectrum Policy

Even the NYTimes is not happy about the expected outcome of the current spectrum auctions — less competition: Wireless Providers Poised to Win Spectrum Licenses

When the government’s multibillion-dollar auction of radio spectrum licenses began two weeks ago, it looked as if newcomers might get the chance to buy their way into the mobile phone business, leading to more choices for consumers.

But now the country’s biggest cellular providers appear poised to win many of the 1,122 licenses up for auction, allowing them to expand their reach and reducing the chance that a new entrant might bring down prices.

[…] Of the $13.3 billion in bids registered thus far, $2.2 billion has come from the cable providers, bidding together in a consortium with Sprint, the third-largest cellular carrier. But about 60 percent of the total bids have come from Cingular, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile, the first-, second- and fourth-largest cellphone companies. T-Mobile has bid nearly $4 billion, mostly for licenses in major metropolitan areas, while Cingular and Verizon have sought licenses that cover broader regions.

In throwing their financial weight around, the cellphone companies may have scared off DirecTV and EchoStar, the two largest satellite television providers, which were expected to make a charge into the wireless arena but withdrew from the auction last week.

“The kings of the hill defended the hill,” said Roger Entner, a wireless industry analyst at Ovum, a telecommunications consulting firm. “The dream of another wave of new entrants has died.”

[…] “I don’t think cable is going to get into mobile voice because it’s overgrazed, but they’ve drunk the 3G Kool-Aid and believe that a lot of nomadic people that they can’t reach are signing up for wireless services,” said Edward Snyder, a telecommunications analyst at Charter Equity Research. Mr. Snyder questioned this strategy, asking, “Why go head-to-head with something that’s been around for years?”

Pimping for Clicks

The magazine business is going through serious heartache in the face of the Google advertising juggernaut. Here’s what happens when traffic becomes the metric of performance for a content provider: At, Lots of Glitter but Maybe Not So Many Visitors

Its own ads proclaim that “more people get their business news from than any other source in the world,” saying that its sites drew about 15 million unique visitors in a single month earlier this year. It was a well-heeled crowd, according to, which says that the average household income of its users is $149,601.

Forbes’s Web prowess is a big reason Elevation Partners, a private equity firm that counts Bono of U2 as a managing director, agreed on Aug. 4 to buy a minority stake in Forbes’s publishing business. “Forbes has already won the first round” in the battle for Internet supremacy, an Elevation founder, Roger McNamee, said then.

But a closer look at the numbers raises questions about’s industry-leading success. For its claim of a worldwide audience of nearly 15.3 million, it has been citing February data from comScore Media Metrix, one of the two leading providers of third-party Web traffic data.

[…] is hardly the only site to present traffic figures that are higher than those reported by the third-party companies. And because they rely on sampling and extrapolation, even the independent companies often present vastly different results for the same site.

Faith in such data has also suffered as a result of recent restatements by the large Web-tracking businesses. […]

[…] The debate is more than just a numbers game. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the Forbes site attracted almost $55 million in revenue in 2005, the most among business publications, including The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek and the business pages of The New York Times.

Some competitors argue that’s popularity derives in part from racy, provocative or wealth-obsessed lifestyle features that have little to do with traditional business news — examples from this year include “The Hottest Billionaire Heiresses,” “Top Topless Beaches” and “America’s Drunkest Cities.” Those kinds of articles, unlikely to appear in Forbes magazine, may be a small fraction of those that posts each day, but they are often featured on mass-market Web portals.

Most financial publications cover the softer side of money, hoping to cast a wide net and attract different types of advertisers. And like, many Web sites link up with portals to increase their traffic. may simply do these things better, or more aggressively, than most.

[…] Still, some competitors say that while eye-catching lifestyle stories may attract lots of readers, those readers are more transient and less likely to be the kind of high-powered professionals that advertisers pay more to reach.

You Got To Fight, For Your Right …

To make fun of Barney! Purple, the Color of a Legal Conniption

But the owners of the Barney character have only themselves to blame if Barney-bashing experiences a renaissance — particularly among denizens of the Internet, for whom the character has been an object of gleefully malevolent parody, off and on, since the early days of the Web.

On Wednesday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group based in San Francisco, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in New York against Lyons Partnership of Allen, Tex., which owns the Barney brand.

The group’s aim is to bring an end to what it characterizes as the partnership’s relentless harassment of Web site owners who parody the Barney character, chiefly through threatening cease-and-desist letters from Lyons’s law firm in New York, Gibney, Anthony & Flaherty.

The EFF case site

Ahh, The “Official” Peter Pan Sequel

Bound to be at least as good as the official sequel to Gone With The Wind, I’m sure: What’s Peter Pan Up to Now? All Will Soon Be Revealed

On Oct. 5 Simon & Schuster, with great fanfare and much promotion, is planning to publish “Peter Pan in Scarlet,” the first “officially sanctioned” sequel to J. M. Barrie’s childhood classic. The Oxford University Press, which is bringing out the book in Britain, is scheduled to release it with a gala party at Kensington Palace. The publishers have even gone so far as to impose a prepublication embargo on the book, whose author, Geraldine McCaughrean, was chosen in a vigorously publicized 2004 international competition held by Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which holds the British literary rights to the Peter Pan characters.

[…] But the Peter story has already been the subject of scores of editions, comic books, motion pictures, stage plays and animations, as well as two best-selling prequels written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. The second of these, “Peter and the Shadow Thieves,” has sold 350,000 copies since its publication in July. Is there room for yet another version?

[…] “Peter Pan in Scarlet” is a kind of last-gasp attempt to cash in on Great Ormond Street’s copyright, which runs out in 2007. “We thought we would make the most of it while we can,” Ms. De Poortere said. “After 2007 it will have so many sequels. At least this is commissioned with our approval, and we will benefit from the income.”

[…] Because of differences in the copyright laws of the United States and Britain, the rights to the Peter character are not copyrighted here, hence the prequels by Mr. Barry and Mr. Pearson.

My, isn’t this a terribly friendly recapping of what has been, in fact, quite the nasty little fight between the Great Ormond Street Hospital and the writers of these “unofficial” stories. See these earlier Furdlog entries for more.

Google Web Services Plan

You wanna put all your stuff on a Google server? Step right up! Google releases software suite for businessespdf

Starting today, Google will offer Google Apps for Your Domain, a free package of programs for businesses, universities, and other organizations.

Workers will be able to send e-mail with Gmail, Google’s two-year-old Web-based mail service, but messages will carry their company’s domain name. The package also includes Google’s online calendar, instant-messaging service, and Page Creator, a Web-page builder.

[…] The free edition of Apps for Your Domain is, like Google’s main site, supported with ads. By the end of the year, the company also plans to launch a paid version that will offer more storage, some degree of support, and likely, no ads. A price for this edition hasn’t been set.

Providing e-mail and other applications for businesses moves Google closer into what has traditionally been turf occupied by Microsoft Corp. Earlier this year, Google released a program that builds simple Excel-type spreadsheets but lets users access them on the Web.

Now, with e-mail, Google appears to be targeting Microsoft’s Outlook and Exchange franchises — although the company plays down any such views.

The terms of service will be key to this, as well as how Microsoft decides to compete. From their “Learn More” page:

What about privacy? Will Google share my organization’s information?

Google takes our users’ privacy very seriously. We won’t share your users’ information with anyone, except under the limited circumstances described in our privacy policies (please refer to the “Information sharing” section for more details).

Note that there’s a privacy policy for each service.

The NYTimes coverage: Google to Offer Services for Businesses

Rising Profile of the Blackboard Patent Dispute

Today’s Boston Globe runs an APWire piece on the fight: Patent dispute shakes up academiapdf

Critics say the patent claims nothing less than Blackboard’s ownership of the very idea of e-learning. If allowed to stand, they say, it could quash the cooperation between academia and the private sector that has characterized e-learning for years and explains why virtual classrooms are better than they used to be.

The patent is “is antithetical to the way that academia makes progress,” said Michael Feldstein, assistant director of the State University of New York’s online learning network and one of the bloggers who has criticized the company.

Blackboard, which recently became the dominant company in the field by acquiring rival WebCT, says the critics misunderstand what the patent claims. But the company does say it must protect its $100 million investment in the technology. The day the patent was announced, Blackboard sued rival Desire2Learn, alleging infringement, and is seeking royalties.

Earlier Furdlog posting with links to other sites in the controversy: Educational Software Patent Fight: Blackboard

From TechDirt: Can We Set Up An Online Learning Class About Our Screwed Up Patent System?