Advertisers find it tough as Google and Canada privacy watchdog focus on serving better ads

By Randell Suba, Tech Times | January 18, 9:22 AM

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Google ads violate privacy

The privacy watchdog of Canada found Google in violation of the country's privacy laws, acting on a complaint of a man who was served ads for sleep apnea, an information considered by the law as too sensitive.
(Photo : Randell Suba | Tech Times)

There are enough reasons why Microsoft insists on its Scroogled campaign and Google is somehow making it all obvious for its nemesis. After being on the hot seat in the United States and several European nations, Google has now earned the ire of Canada's privacy watchdog. However, the company claims that it is doing its best to get rid of ads that tend to violate its users' private life.

As millions of people search for things over the Internet using Google, the search engine giant earns billions through targeted ads served to its users based on their behaviors. What people search for will be used to laser target online advertisements that may be interesting to them.

Google bugged me about my sleep apnea

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada on Wednesday found Google in violation of the country's privacy laws. A Canadian man struggling with sleep apnea, a condition where a person stops breathing while sleeping, had complained to the commission that Google violated his privacy.

According to the complainant, he searched the Internet for continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP devices that is normally prescribed for people with sleep apnea. The machine ensures that patients get enough air in case cessation of breathing occurs in the middle of their sleep. After he searched for CPAP, the complainant kept on seeing ads for such devices. The ads never stopped to popping up even after he restarted his computer.

Canada's privacy laws clearly states that companies such as Google must obtain the consent of a consumer in order to use sensitive information. For the complainant, sleep apnea being a medical condition is a sensitive matter and Google should have asked for his permission.

Receptive to the complaint, Google tried to stop the ads from appearing on the complainant's browser but the privacy watchdog found out that the company's methods were ineffective. The staff members of the said commission also simulated what the complainant experienced and they were also haunted by online ads about CPAP.

"if an organization as sophisticated as Google has difficulty ensuring compliance with its privacy policy, surely others have the same challenges. The operational challenges are inherent to online behavioural advertising," said Chantal Bernier, Canada's interim privacy commissioner, in an interview.

Canadian advertisers are also closely working with the privacy commissioner's office to make sure that their industry thrives without violating laws.

"We work very closely with the privacy commissioner ... Online behavioural advertising is a very important tool for marketers...We don't want a knee-jerk reaction by legislators that this is too new and different, and they're just going to ban it," said President and Chief Executive of the Association of Canadian Advertisers Ron Lund.

The ACA and the Canadian Marketing Association, getting support from about 30 companies, released guidelines on how to properly work with targeted ads with prohibitions on using medical, financial, and other personal information that are deemed sensitive.

Google says it's doing its part

Google knows that it needs to improve how it serves targeted ads and from its end, and it says it is doing all it can to improve the experience of Internet users.

"We removed more than 350 million bad ads from our systems in 2013. To put that in perspective, if someone looked at each of these for one second, it would take them more than ten years to see them all. This was a significant increase from approximately 220 million ads removed in 2012. This trend has been consistent in the last several years and we attribute it to several factors, including: the growth of online advertising overall and constant improvement of our detection systems," director of ads engineering at Google Mike Hochberg wrote in a blog post.

"The number of advertisers we disabled, however, dropped from over 850,000 in 2012 to more than 270,000 in 2013. In part, we attribute this decline to scammers - counterfeiters, for example - being thwarted by our safety screens and searching for less-secure targets," he added.

The company also announced Friday that it will be conducting in-ad surveys to help improve the advertising experience of users.

"Over the next few weeks, we'll be expanding the ways users can give us feedback about ads by introducing a series of short surveys in English-speaking countries which will appear after an ad is muted. These surveys will help us understand why users mute ads, serve better ads to users, spot publishers and advertisers in violation of Google's policies, and help improve ad and placement quality for the broader advertising ecosystem," wrote Google product manager Michael Aiello on the official adwords blog.

As different countries prove that they can stand against the privacy violations of Google, Internet users are hoping that the search engine company will just let them be as they browse the Web without having to worry about Google using their deepest secrets to serve up interesting (or not so interesting) online ads.

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