TOC And in the tomb the Eye was watching Cain Your Turn

If the revolution I advocate over individual data rights ever succeed (see 05/30 fillip) and my ego inflates to too dangerous a size, I better remember last week. Here I was, expounding on truth no less (see 12/05 fillip), and I mistakenly affiliated Ian Austen with the Financial Times rather than the New York Times for which he truly works. Hoisted with my own petard, I who like to castigate the press and Internet barons (see 11/07 fillip)! One cannot insist enough on the importance of a redress process (see 08/22 fillip). Errors will be made. If one cannot identify and contact the source, errors will propagate for ever as rumors do. With data rights come data responsibilies. Privacy, Identity, Responsibility is our motto.

Back to the story, I do not intend today to discuss plagiarism. Without prejudice I only state that stories are like some of the best family recipes. They get better when cooked a second time. Take Victor Hugo for example. Endowed with a towering ego and not afraid to rewrite the Bible, he gave us a rather striking rendition of Cain's fleeing from Jehovah (1). Wherever he goes, Cain fails to escape the gaze of an Eye bearing witness to the truth. With his family, he wanders restlessly to more and more desolate lands. To no avail. Finally driven to distraction, he asks in his despair to be buried alive. Falls the final verse of Hugo's epic poem. "And in the tomb the Eye was watching Cain".

Even in French schools today, I doubt children read Hugo any more than Genesis. But as they sit in front of the television set, they should have second thoughts. Postmodern irony likes to poke fun at the past. Courtesy of Google and BSkyB, the relentless Eye will soon be, if not in the tomb, at least in the set-top box. According to a report filed by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (*), "Google's Adsense technology [...] would be deployed alongside BSkyB's knowledge of its customers' profiles and interests".

Let me hasten to highlight the conditional mood as I cling to straws. Indeed a second report (**) quotes a Google managing director as saying "there is "no ink on the paper" about this element of [the] agreement". But we have been put on notice. "Overhauling the old system of every viewer watching the same commercials [is] a logical next step".

A superficial reader may very well get the impression I do not like advertising (e.g. 07/25 fillip). This of course would be a grevious error. How else can a supplier ever hope to alert future clients to the benefits of its offer ? The axe I have to grind has to do with the advertisers who tend to overdo it a teeny bit too much. It does not help that, in Genesis 3, the first advertiser ever cleverly achieves market saturation with very few words, one big lie and truly catastrophic consequences. Advertisers have since been prone to follow, if not in the footsteps, at least in the spirit of their model.

At this game, Google has been true to his motto, "Do no evil". While some web sites vie to carry the most distracting displays of unwanted adverts, Google clearly separates ads from genuine search results and gives them a most unobtrusive format. In this context, I welcome ads as additional information.

One can renounce Satan and still be clever. We stated last week that Internet is ideal for harnessing popularity (12/05 fillip). Google's insight has been to make its recommendation mechanism (09/12 fillip) rank ads according to the product of their per click unit pricing and their popularity as measured by click volume. Saying that this scheme increases ad relevance to users strikes me as spin. What it does is to maximize Google's expected revenue per ad slot. Brilliant. Miguel Helft (***) and Richard Waters (****) have documented Yahoo's recent travails as it struggles to counter this deadly competitive move.

What's wrong then with Google's plans on BSkyB set-top boxes? It is the combination of three factors.

First there is no denying a growing arrogance in Google's behavior (e.g. 11/07 fillip). This is how Hell gets paved with good intentions.

Second the temptation is rather overwhelming. All advertisers today salivate at the idea to tailor ads to viewers' personal profiles. It is technologically feasible although fraught with privacy issues (05/16, 05/23 fillips). However BSkyB tightly controls its set-top box as a black box, which greatly decreases any undesirable exposure, were it to bilk its customers. Actually what legally prevents BSkyB to share its customers' profiles with a marketing partner such as Google ? All privacy policies I have read so far boldly assert this right. As Eric Schmidt gushes, "if it works, it will become our most lucrative deal from the get-go".

Third Google has already taken the steps to preempt user protests in brazenly offering free email service in return for reading one's mail (e.g. 05/16 fillip), a service to be carried by BSkyB (*). I know, I know. "Only a machine reads gmails, not a human being" says Google, as if no Google employee had access to Google's machines. If the hand is gloved, does it become innocent ?

After I spoke about truth last week, I felt there was nothing more to add. Indeed I have come back full circle to my very first fillip, on Greed (05/02). Along the way we saw there is a way to personalize adverts in perfect privacy (06/20 fillip). Yahoo plans to deliver more control to the advertisers "over where and when their messages appear on the web" (****). It should also consider giving back the users clear title over their data.

Be even less evil and close the Eye for shame.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......Google launches BSkyB tie-up, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - December 7, 2006
  • (**).... Google outlines BSkyB thinking, by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson (Financial Times) - December 8, 2006
  • (***) ..Yahoo, Aiming for Agility, Shuffles Executives, by Miguel Helft (New York Times) - December 6, 2006
  • (****) Yahoo is starting to think out of the box, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - December 8, 2006
  • (1) in Victor Hugo's La Légende des Siècles. See this translation available online courtesy of John Newmark.
December 2006
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