Watching Google AdWords: The Mysterious Mechanization of Meaning in the Google Brain
Google's AdWords system serves ads alongside about a quarter of all web traffic. In the process of serving those ads, Google actively processes the user browsing data in order to target its advertising, making AdWords one of the world's most extensive processors of personal data. But existing approaches to privacy and surveillance struggle to describe harms from such uses of consumer data that are proportionate to the amount of personal data involved. Google may have access to this vast stream of personal data, but it cannot take away your job, jail you, or kill you using that data, and there are many well documented cases of surveillance, online and offline, that do result in those sorts of outcomes. So why should we care deeply about Google's processing of advertising data online in the face of other, obviously authoritarian uses of surveillance?
We should care because Google's use of the AdWords data seeds a network of grey surveillance that may not have direct effects on the individual surveillance subjects but does have important effects on our modes of creating and consuming content online. By viewing AdWords as a network of grey surveillance, we can analyze it not as a single source of Big Brother type surveillance, but instead as the hub of a network of surveillance like activities. Each of these activities may or may not amount to surveillance or have a significant, direct impact on the individual subject, but together they have potentially profound impacts on social discourse (and through that discourse on the individual subjects of surveillance).
In particular, the grey surveillance activities that surround Google's search and ad ranking systems have fostered the growth of a system of collective intelligence (a Google brain) powered by its deep integration into the content consumption of its users. The AdWords and AdSense terming systems have moved the work of creating meaning for consumer objects away from the advertising itself and toward the attached content. And that network, driven by ad auction and pay per click payment systems, acts as a deeply opaque mechanized bureaucracy that replaces many of the functions traditionally served by advertising agencies. The result is a mysterious mechanization of meaning in the Google brain which plays a central role in the creation of social discourse online.
Hal Roberts is the long time geek in/out of residence at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. He is currently doing research in the areas of internet filtering circumvention, botnet and other grey forms of surveillance, and analysis of main stream and new/citizen media. Hal has worked on the technical side of many Berkman projects over the years, including H2O, Weblogs at Harvard Law, and Global Voices Online.