Surveillance and Internet Advertisement

by. Erick Kennedy


My research question is “How do internet advertisers obtain information about the people they advertise to, and how do they use this information?” As this is the case, the primary materials I will be using will be the search engines Google, Yahoo!, and Bing. I will be researching these companies policies on how they collect information from their users, and how the use this information. In order to understand the importance of studying these three specific search engines, I need to know what makes people use each of them, and why they are the biggest engines out there.

What's the Difference Between Search Engines?

There are many differences between the three major search engines. A search for “Iron Man 3” on all three lends different results. While all three gave basic information about the movie, each was laid out completely different. Google seemed to me to be the most simple to find all of the information that someone could want, with Bing being second.


Google, as I said before, had the simplest user interface. A search for “Iron Man 3" clearly shows most of the information that anyone searching for the movie might need. The first thing in the main results area is a list of show times and theaters near the user that are showing the movie. To the right of this, it gives images related to the movie. Under the images section, it gives a brief synopsis of the film, ratings, the release date, the cast, and various other bits of information. Back in the main search area, under the list of theaters and show times, are news articles about the movie, and other general search results.


Yahoo!’s interface is a bit more minimalistic. When searching for "Iron Man 3", you might notice that at the top of the results is the official movie trailer and show times. To the right of this is information about the film, such as its genre, rating, cast, and running time. Below the trailer and show times are other videos about the film, and below that is the rest of the general search results.


Bing has an interface that lands somewhere between Google and Yahoo. A search for “Iron Man 3” on Bing immediately brings up news on the film, which is displayed at the top left. Next to the news is a section of facts about the movie, including a brief synopsis, ratings, and cast members. Below the news are videos about Iron Man 3, and under that are the general search terms Something to note is that Bing has a section on the right side of the page for “Social Results”. This section allows the user to connect their Facebook page to see what your friends are searching and writing about. This might be a major plus for people who wish to share what they are searching about with others.

Why Does This Matter?

This information is relevant to my topic because most people who use the internet use one of these three search engines. This is how a majority of the information internet advertisers know about people is obtained. Knowing what each engine looks and functions like can provide insight into why people might use each of them. This is useful information in determining how their popularity affects their possible ad revenue and their advertising strategies.

"The Big Three's" Advertising Policies

So, we know why people use the three major search engines, but how do the search engines use the information that people provide them? To find out, I consulted each company’s privacy policies to learn about how they obtain information and how they use that information.

How Google Obtains Information About it's Users

Google's privacy poilcy states that they collect information about their customers in two different ways: “Information you give us” and “Information we get from your use of our services.” Under “Information you give us”, it says that this information consists of information you fill in when creating a Google account, such as your name, email address, phone number, or credit card. The “Information we get from your use of our services” section is quite a bit longer. It describes information obtained by using Google products. This includes device information, log information (such as what you search for), location information, and information gathered from cookies. Cookies are bits of information that are sent to your computer when you visit a website. Cookies are stored on your computer, and contain information about your previous visit, such as preferences.

How Google Uses This Information

According to this privacy policy, Google uses the personal information collected from their various services to “provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users.” It goes on to say, “We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.” It also says that they use the information to update account information for accounts with the same email address, but this is less relevant to my topic. It finishes by stating that users can choose to control certain information gathered from their Google accounts, and that they can even opt out of certain Google advertising services.

How Yahoo! Obtains Information About it's Users

The “Information Collection and Use” section of Yahoo!’s privacy policy starts off by saying that “Yahoo! collects personal information when you register with Yahoo!, when you use Yahoo! products or services, when you visit Yahoo! pages or the pages of certain Yahoo! partners, and when you enter promotions or sweepstakes. Yahoo! may combine information about you that we have with information we obtain from business partners or other companies.” It also claims that, “When you register with Yahoo! and sign in to our services, you are not anonymous to us.” They also collect information about the user’s computer, including the user’s IP address, information about the user’s hardware and software, and which page the user has requested. It goes on to say that, “Yahoo! uses information for the following general purposes: to customize the advertising and content you see, fulfill your requests for products and services, improve our services, contact you, conduct research, and provide anonymous reporting for internal and external clients.” The last part, “…provide anonymous reporting for internal and external clients”, is especially interesting. It finishes the section by assuring that children under the age of 13 aren’t allowed to have personal accounts, so no information should be unknowingly gathered from them.

How Yahoo! Uses This Information

Yahoo! claims that they only share user’s personal information with “trusted partners who work on behalf of or with Yahoo! under confidentiality agreements”, or with the authorities in the event of illegal activity. It goes on to say, “Yahoo! displays targeted advertisements based on personal information”, but also says that, “Yahoo! does not provide any personal information to the advertiser when you interact with or view a targeted ad. However, by interacting with or viewing an ad you are consenting to the possibility that the advertiser will make the assumption that you meet the targeting criteria used to display the ad.”

How Bing Obtains Information About it's Users

Bing’s privacy policy starts off by saying that they place and use cookies on your machine for Bing and other Microsoft services. They then go on to state that, “When you use Bing services, Microsoft may collect many kinds of information in order to operate effectively and provide you the best products, services and experiences we can. We collect information when you register, sign in and use our sites and services. We also may get information from other companies. We collect this information in a variety of ways, including from web forms, technologies like cookies, web logging and software on your computer or other device.” They list information that they collect when you conduct a Bing search. It includes the search term and time and date of your search, your IP Address, your browser configuration and approximate location, and any unique identifiers contained in the cookies. They claim to remove records of IP addresses after 6 months, and cookies after 18 months.

How Bing Uses This Information

The privacy policy states that “we [Microsoft] use this information to provide you with relevant search results. We also use the information we collect to maintain and improve the quality, security and integrity of our services. For example we may use this information for research purposes and to improve the relevancy of Bing search results. This information is also necessary in order to detect and protect against security threats such as botnet attacks, click fraud, worms, and other threats.” At the bottom of the section titled, “How We Use Your Personal Information”, it says that “[Bing] may use search query data for the purpose of personalizing the ads we display to you as you use our services or those of our advertising partners.” Towards the bottom of the page is a section titled, “Display of Advertising.” This section claims that most Bing ads are by Microsoft themselves, but adds, “When we display online advertisements to you, we will place one or more cookies in order to recognize your computer when we display an ad to you. Over time, we may gather information from the sites where we serve ads and use the information to help provide more relevant ads.” It finishes by mentioning that users may opt out of targeted ads.

So What?

All of the information I’ve gathered on the topic of internet advertising is important for internet users to know about. People need to know what kind of information companies obtain about them, what information gets passed on to other companies, and how that information is used against them. If people know the specific ways that advertisers can learn about them, they might think twice before giving that information to sources they otherwise might have. Through my research, I’ve also learned that Google and Bing give users the option of opting out of targeted advertisement, but that this option is not made readily apparent. This is a good option for people who don’t want to the

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