What every parent should know about the Internet
Part 5 - Google knows everything
by David Clark
You may have heard the saying that ‘Google knows everything’. What this generally means is that by using the Google search engine, almost all knowledge sitting somewhere on the Internet is accessible. But have you ever considered how companies use the Internet to market and sell products, including dubious practices such as ‘viral marketing’. You will be surprised by how much they know about you. Not only does Google (and other search engines) know a great deal about the Internet, they also know a lot about you.
The Internet has opened up a huge amount of knowledge, and knowledge, particularly about individuals, can be sold. Some of this activity is illegal; much of it is perfectly within the confines of the law.
In a recent article, one senior fraud expert explained that criminals are exploiting the same data-mining techniques that are used by banks and governments to spot fraud. This process can be fully automated, with the people who do this known as ‘Data Doggs’. To put this in context, a senior British Telecom executive explained that "for a small fee, $50 (£30) or thereabouts, they'd gather all the data on you and prepare a three- to five-page detailed report. The fee implies this exercise probably took less than an hour”1 .
The price of free
Over the last few years, or in other words since most people began using the Internet, we have become accustomed to ‘free’ information. But, as the saying goes, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. This is also the case for the Internet. While it is true that it is easy to find websites on the Internet that are there for purely altruistic reasons, many of those active on the Internet are driven by motives that range from making a profit to proselytizing. There are also many with much darker motives. Writing on the leading Internet search provider, one commentator suggested that “the ‘price’ that we pay for Google's free services is to present ourselves as better targets for niche marketing’2. Google, in common with most search engines, makes 99% of its profit from advertising. Of course, the better and more focused the advertising, the easier it is to sell. Companies, after all, don’t want to spend money advertising to people who have no interest in their products.
“So what?” you may say. “Don’t we already live in a society bombarded with advertising, from television, newspaper, radio, magazines and a myriad of other locations? There is nothing immoral or wrong about advertising. Is this not just another form of the kind of advertising that we have simply grown accustomed to ignoring?”
There is great strength in this argument, and I would not wish to suggest that advertising is immoral. After all, we Christians advertise our meetings and our special events. We want people to know about them or about a cause for which we feel passionately.
Yet there are peculiar and very real dangers with the Internet. Because it seems impersonal, for many it provides an almost irresistible draw. For example, as we discussed in a previous article, people are prone to reveal information about themselves on social networks, things that they would not say if they were face to face with an individual. It is precisely because of this that Internet predators succeed. Take the case of a 57-year-old man, Colin Maddocks, who conned 12 girls in British Columbia, Canada, between 13 and 16 years old into believing that he himself was a teenager. Virtual meetings would lead to face to face meetings where “Maddocks would offer alcohol, cigarettes and drugs as enticements in order to gain control and compliance to requests of a sexual nature”3.
The truth is that we are often far too naive and ready to give out information about ourselves on a website without know anything (or very little) of who runs the website, or what they will do with the information. Not only this, but even our searches for information provide data that can be sold.
Information for sale
In his fascinating book entitled ‘Click - what millions of people are doing online and why it matters’, author Bill Tancer draws data from an Internet marketing company called Hitwise Competitive Intelligence Services. The data is a sample of over 10 million people using the Internet in the UK, USA and other countries (a small sample compared with most search engines). Tancer illustrates the power of information through a series of examples. In one graph he shows how searches for diet websites are at their highest two weeks after the US Thanksgiving holiday. Similarly, searches of homes for sale peak in July, slowly decrease until just after Christmas when there is another significant jump of interest. All of this is useful information for anyone wishing to sell a diet, or a home.
When tracking the resent outbreak of swine flu, the Center for Disease Control turned to Google as a reliable source of information. The data provided by Google was as good as and more instantaneous than almost any other data source. Writing on their web site, Google says that they “found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time4 “.
A comparison of Flu data from Google and the CDC
Author John Battelle, in his book “The Search - How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” coins the term ‘the database of intention”, which he describes as “the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.”. He goes on to describe the power of Internet information by explaining that “information represents, in aggregate form, a place holder for the intentions of humankind - a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward”.
Internet marketers sell information, and the more targeted it is the better. It has been noted that “89% of adults share content with friends, family and associates by email5 ”, Viral marketing works by adding targeted advertising to content that might be shared - for example a YouTube video, or a joke email. The psychology behind viral marketing is subtle. People receiving email, or a recommendation from a friend or colleague are less likely to discard it. One viral marketer explains that “people generally like to share content because it makes them feel more important. If you appear to be the first to find something of interest to your peers or others and then give that thing to them; it will gain you kudos and instill within you a subtle sense of increased social worth6 ”.
How does it work?
Every time you search for something on the Internet, that search is recorded. Every time you go to a web site, or you click on a link, that fact is recorded. Every piece of information you enter into the Internet is stored and may be sold to others. Last year, Google's annual revenue was more than $23 billion. It made its money by selling targeted advertising. Clicking those ‘sponsored links’ on the right of the search results page will generate revenue for Google. Companies bid on ‘keywords’ used during searches. The more popular the keyword, the more expensive it is. The order in which the ‘sponsored links’ are displayed reflect the price that bidders are willing to pay to have you click on their link. Other search engines, Yahoo or Bing and others, all operate on a similar model.
Website owners have a similar array of tools at their disposal. These tools, called ‘analytics’ store and analyze every piece of information - the number of visitors, where they come from, how long they spent browsing the web site, which pages they looked at and for how long, whether they entered the web site as a result of a search or from another web site, what page they exited the web site at, etc? All this information is useful in targeting users, improving the web site and better selling the products on display.
Some sample information from Google Analytics showing which country and which town in the UK web site visitors came from
It should be apparent by now that everything you do on the Internet is being recorded, catalogued, organized and probably sold. In one sense, there is very little we can do about this if we are to use the Internet at all. However, as Christians, we are to be wise about the world we live in and not easily taken in. We “should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting7 ”. We are sent “forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” and must therefore be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves8 ”. The injunction comes in the context of a warning to “beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils…” Already information gleaned on the Internet, particularly social networks, is being used in evidence in the courts. Imagine if the law of the land were anti-Christian, something we in the UK have come very close to with recent efforts to introduce what was termed “equality legislation”. How could the information harvested about us on the Internet then be used? While we have liberty, we are not to be shy in using our rights where they can further the cause of the Gospel, as Paul did when confronting the authorities in Philippi after his release from prison. But in all things, it is good to remember and understand people’s motives and the potential use that they can make of information that we have freely given away on the Internet.
The first thing is not to overreact. When George Orwell described ‘Big Brother’ in his novel entitled 1984, he had no idea of the extent to which our every action would be catalogued! While it is possible to install software that claims to cover up your tracks when browsing, in reality this is a very difficult thing to achieve. Rather, we should be very wary of giving out personal information, particularly to websites of which we know very little. We must always bear in mind that the ‘privacy of our own home’ is a misnomer when it comes to the Internet - all that we do is being recorded. Let us be wise in what we give away and the information we post, employing that most uncommon grace of ‘sanctified common sense’. Our approach to the Internet should be the same as the rest of life: “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things9 ”. That also applies to the web sites we visit!
In the next article, we will consider the Internet gaming industry, including one new game from a major software company based on Dante’s Inferno that allows users to explore all 9 levels of hell.
Comments from EVJ readers on this series can be posted on David Clark’s blog (http://parentsandtheinternet.blogspot.com) or sent via email to ParentsAndTheInternet@googlemail.com. Where possible, posted contributions and emails will be answered anonymously in the final articles of this series.