August 18, 2006

Gift Clustering?

Filed under: whatever — Brian @ 7:50 pm

eWeek reports that Amazon has filed for a patent on “Gift Clustering”. What’s that, you ask? Let me pull a few snippets for you:

…a process that would allow Amazon customers to use the retail Web site to gather information on other customers, including “birthday, interests, occupation, education level, income level, location, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.”

That information would be obtained by Amazon through several means, including “from a user profile for the recipient, from past ordering patterns of the recipient or from publicly accessible databases” and Amazon would then make recommendations based on “appropriate recipients for the items (e.g., religion and race),” the patent filing said.

So, Amazon gathers as much information about you as they can in order to figure out just what kind of person you are. Then they look up your “person type” in their list of “gift clusters” and then suggest that people buy you things that appear on the list of things they think “people like you” would like.

Hmm. I think we all like to think we’re more individual than all that, but maybe it would come up with some good ideas.

And maybe not.

The filing offers an example: “Some or all individual items may have categorization information associated with them (e.g., a toy with a suggested age range or a gender-specific health product) and, if so, the categorization information for the items in a gift cluster could be combined to create an aggregate categorization for the gift cluster.

I’m just gonna say that if you’re looking to buy something for me – no, for anyone – as a surprise, and the words “gender-specific health product” enters your mind, you’re very likely to be on the wrong track.



  1. I think this bothers me. I’m not a “privacy nut” by any means but on the other hand, this sounds like something that could reveal embarassing information about the user, if not embarassing gift purchases. I think Amazon should stick to the order fulfillment business and stay out of the “gift cluster” business.

    Comment by Gwynne — August 19, 2006 @ 1:52 am

  2. I agree – and the article says they have no plans to implement this. But that makes it bad in two of my categories:

    1 – Patents that don’t “promote progress in science and the useful arts” (Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution). If you get a patent, but don’t use it, you should lose it. This kind of “defensive patent” only hinders progress.

    2 – The privacy issues.

    But I have a hard time blaming Amazon for thinking about this stuff, either. I think we’re quite firmly in the world where information about everything from grocery store purchases to web site visits to paying road tolls with those iPass transponders is recorded, making it easy to track a person’s behavior and preferences.

    Of course they’re going to use that information. And I like their “people who bough this also bought that” feature, and it’s based on a lot of this same information.

    It really seems like a matter of degree, than of kind.

    Comment by Brian — August 19, 2006 @ 7:22 am

  3. I like their “people who bought this also bought that” feature

    Yeah, I like this feature too and I thought about that, but the difference is that it’s feeding this information (based on my purchases) back to me rather than to any number of other people.

    I hadn’t thought about that issue with “defensive patents” before, but that’s a very good point.

    Comment by Gwynne — August 19, 2006 @ 11:07 pm

  4. That’s a sensible distinguishing feature, Gwynne. I was trying to figure out if there’s a clear line between “uses of what-I-consider-to-be private information that are OK, and uses that are not.” That’s probably it, huh? Feeding it back to me is OK. Feeding it to anyone else should require my permission.

    But – the information they use for that “people who bought this…” feature is purchase records from other people. So, here we get to the part where I’d say it’s OK to include my information in a mass of other peoples’ information, so long as you don’t call me out specifically.

    It feels like the only way to avoid abuses is to have a law around it. But it also feels like any law would be broken.

    Comment by Brian — August 20, 2006 @ 8:17 am

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