On a Sunday, I was reading the news on the BBC website. On the pages there are Google advertisements. I noticed long ago that there is an advertisement for “Expats in the Czech Republic”, a category to which I clearly belong. The fact that “they” spotted I am an expat in the Czech Republic never overly concerned me. It should be, after all, easy to spot that I used to be elsewhere and now spent most of my time in this Country. And anyhow, they are still not smart enough to see that I am not British, because their advertisement has to do with British tax optimisation, which does not concern me in the slightest.
But now there was something different: an advertisement for rental cars in Krakow. Why Krakow of all places, I thought? And then I remembered that only last week we booked a hotel for a weekend in that very city, using booking.com. I checked on my partners’ laptop, and sure enough, the advertisement was not there. So wow. Google knows – somehow – I made a reservation in Krakow, and somehow they sell this knowledge to a car rental company or companies, who subsequently post an advertisement on yet another website. Maybe for you, dear reader, this is commonplace but I find this rather frightening. Oh yes, of course websites like booking.com and amazon.com “remember” what you looked at and what you booked and bought. It is also well known that Google and other search engines “adapt” search results based on God knows what algorithm. Try it out with a colleague and enter the exact same search string at the exact same moment and you will see the results will be fairly to totally different.
However, I feel this is on a different level altogether. This means that either Google is spying on what I am doing inside booking.com, or that booking.com is selling the information to Google. Then Google is selling this information on to others, who subsequently buy advertising space on bbc.co.uk. How does this work? Do they already know that I go almost daily to that website, or is this advertisement “waiting” for me somewhere to be pushed under my nose as soon as I visit a website which is part of the scheme? And it must be totally automatic, as I am sure there no guy sitting somewhere picking up the phone and saying “he now booked a hotel in Krakow, guys, lets’ put some advertisements under his nose”. From a technological point of view of course, this is impressive. Imagine our palletisers would “know” what our customers are going to produce on a given day in advance.
I do not know why it frightens me. I am not involved in anything illegal (other than speeding on the motorway occasionally perhaps) so I do not fear to be “found out”. In a way, it is very convenient. I imagine this technology will “improve” still further which will mean that more and more the Internet will not be global at all, it will be tailor made to what I need, or rather, what “they” think I need. I hope they are not smart enough yet, but possibly in the future they will not only put content under my nose thy believe is relevant to me, I can see it coming that they will “adapt” content based on what they think my overall beliefs are. So, if they think I am a creationist (which decidedly I am not) they might adapt Wikipedia so when I go there they will tell me why evolution theories are gravely mistaken.
And this is my main concern: I do NOT want to be locked up in a small circle of information “they” believe is relevant to me. I wish to explore and learn new things and grow as a human being. Ultimately, this is what I believe life is all about.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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