Have you ever used Ask.com?
Probably not, if the industry numbers are anywhere near correct. But you might think about trying -- especially after its announcement this week.
Believe me, I'm not shilling for Ask.com. On the contrary: during the month I recently spent in London I was forced to watch endless runs of Ask's faux-amateur commercials on the BBC -- an experience that made me want to rip my eyeballs out, right after I burned down the offices of Ask's advertising agency.
I remember watching the ads with another Silicon Valley veteran, who shook his head and said, "Why would a company willing to spend millions to take on a juggernaut like Google do so with these unbelievably lame and degrading ads?"
Good question. But now, after I'd long since written Ask off as yet one more failure (actually a double failure, considering its first incarnation as AskJeeves) in the search engine wars, suddenly the company makes a move of astonishing brilliance: this week it announced a new service called AskEraser, that would allow users to erase any trace of their searches.
It goes without saying that this is absolutely counter to the general trend of the Internet world. Indeed, the whole strategy of Web 2.0 is to gather as much information as you can about your users/members, both to customize and improve your offering, and, more important, in hopes of monetizing those assets, mostly by selling them to advertisers. This strategy is a natural development in the evolution of the Web, but it has also created an angry backlash that grows bigger by the day.
Every week there seems to be yet one more scandal involving the big Web companies intruding too far into people's personal lives and private information, conducting what they believe to be acceptable business practices, but which are seen by many users as a violation of a perceived social contract that exists in cyberspace.
Just consider: Yahoo helping the Chinese government arrest a dissident, Google's permanent recording of all searches, the record industry's assault on downloaders, Facebook's possibly criminal sharing of customer purchase information via Beacon, and the widespread usage of "behavioral targeting" based upon customer search queries, page views and purchases. Together, they suggest a new Web reality in which the moment you sign on you are pounced upon by a host of giant companies, which then follow your every move until the moment you sign off … or after.
Web corporations inevitably justify this by saying they are doing it for our own good. After all, isn't it better to sign on Amazon and see a list of interesting new books, chosen based upon your last few purchases? And isn't it a good thing when you're conducting a Google search to have relevant retailers listed right at the top of the page, rather than forcing you to slog through several hundred superfluous entries?
Of course it is, and I'd be a hypocrite to say that I don't regularly take advantage of both of these services. But it is also disquieting -- and it grows more so when it seems like every Web-centric company in sight is jumping on to the behavior-targeting bandwagon. Is this really what we all had in mind for the Internet?