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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Data Dump: Are Potential Panelists Scorning Google?

Suppose a stranger showed up at your house, a shiny new modem under his arm. He says he wants to attach the device to your computer so he can see everything you do online - how you update your Facebook friends with news about your cats, how you use Twitter to flatter your boss, how you single-handedly are keeping the cult of Kim Kardashian alive. He says he will use the information to help make the Internet run more smoothly. All mankind will benefit.

It probably wouldn't take you long to slam the door. You might consider moving your couch up against it too, just to be sure.

But what if he said he was working for Google, a company that has promised to do no evil, and offered you five shiny new dollar bills to sweeten the deal?

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people are confronting this question. Google has hired a research company, GfK Custom Research, to send out old-fashioned letters seeking cooperation for its Screenwise Panel project, a trac king effort intended to help not only Google but “experts at universities” conduct “important research on trends in the way people use media.” Full-scale participation, the letter promises, will reap even more loot: $50 a month “or even more.”

As usual with Google, it wants information to flow in only one direction: toward Google. The history of Screenwise is thus a little vague. It was never officially announced but the tech media noticed a sign-up page early last year, and some sites wrote about it at the time. As Search Engine Land noted, “the timing of this program seems odd, especially considering the backlash that Google has faced over the upcoming changes to its privacy policy.”

The Street View controversy, where Google secretly scoop ed up Internet traffic from households and then fought a full disclosure of its activities, also did not seem to bode well for another data collection program, even if this one was completely opt-in.

Initially, perhaps, people loved the idea of participating in Screenwise. The sign-up page reportedly crashed because of heavy traffic. That was the last anyone heard of it. Even Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which keeps an attentive watch on privacy issues at the search engine, figured Google had abandoned Screenwise.

But it merely changed tactics. Despite that supposed flood of interest in signing up, the program still needed many more participants. It appears that people did not love the idea quite as much as it seemed. And so Google started quietly seeking more people to join.

I heard about the new Screenwise from my sister-in-law, who got a letter addressed to “current resident.” With so many devices in her family, Google was offering to pay about $100 a month. That was tempting, but Carolyn had some privacy qualms. Knowing that Google is tracking via Gmail and Chrome just about everything you are doing is one thing; actively encouraging this through a special modem is another.

As Carolyn was debating whether to proceed, Screenwise called her. “It was kind of a high-pressure conversation,” she told me. “The woman on the line insisted that all they wanted to know was how much time we were on the Internet each day, not what we were doing there. Right.” Later, Carolyn wondered how Screenwise got her phone number. She decided the money was not worth it.

Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said the company does “panel research to help better serve our users by learning more about people's media use on the web and elsewhere.” She added that the Screenwis e panels “are completely optional to join and we've invested significantly to ensure that panelists' security and privacy are protected.”

Another reason Google might be having trouble getting enough participants could have to do with the name on the letter. It is signed, “J. Michael Dennis, Ph.D.” Since that graduate degree is pointedly emphasized, some recipients are probably searching for Mr. Dennis on Google. They will quickly find that not only is he a questionnaire expert but that his dissertation was on “The Politics of Kidney Transplantation.”

Mr. Dennis told me he could not comment about his work for Google. Are people worried that they will tell someone on Google Chat that they are going to take a nap and wake up the next day in a bathtub full of ice, missing a vital organ - just like in the popular urban legend? Maybe people will willingly surrender their privacy on the Internet but want at all costs to keep their kidneys.

Screenwise Panel Letter (PDF)

Screenwise Panel Letter (Text)