Fear not Google’s bid to rock ‘n’ rule your world

January 27, 2012


Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Big social media company changes its privacy rules. The Internet goes nuts. The tech press fuels the flames. Much hand-wringing and shouts of promises not kept ensue.

Sound familiar?

This time it’s not Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who’s losing sleep. It’s Google’s Larry Page. The search giant changed its rules mid-game, and it’s getting an earful.

Google’s privacy changes are both less and more than meets the eye. The less: Google has been collecting all the data in question already, most for a long time. The more: It’s one thing to collect data, quite another to change how you use it without giving your customers any flexibility. Google should be lauded for über transparency, but it’s hard to like “Our Way or the Highway.”

The concept is pretty simple. You’ve allowed Google to cull a lot of personal facts and behavioral details, but each of the services Google provides has had its own privacy rules, and for the most part none of that information about you in each was indexed against the data in others. Your Gmail details are over here, and your calendar deets are over there, and never the twain met. It makes lots of sense to tear down the walls between all the different Google services you may use, so that your likes and habits and movements and appointments are all aware of each other.

The question (and this is the eternal question about digital privacy): Is it as good for you as it is for Google to have all that information mashed up? I’ve argued that the interests of Facebook, its members and the marketers who want to exploit that audience aren’t necessarily aligned. Facebook also hoards scads of information about you, and for about as long as Google has. The social network’s privacy rules are, shall we say, somewhat more complex than Google’s. And nobody seems to care much, if you can infer that from Facebook’s steady increase in membership. (Now at 800 million, roughly 11 percent of the planet.)

Google has portrayed its changes as being part of an ever-improving symbiosis. One of the examples they highlight is actually a reasonable one: You have an appointment but you’re accidentally headed in the opposite direction. In doing so you run the risk of being late. Using all the things Google and your smartphone know — your calendar, your location, the time of day, the traffic, weather conditions — a voice channels HAL 9000 and says: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Google’s changes, then, aren’t about the sleazy side of the ad business where non-anonymous facts about you are sold to the highest bidder. They’re about using computing power no individual can possibly have to synthesize facts we can’t readily process that then make our lives simpler, more efficient and more satisfying. Yes, this means allowing a public company to take custody of our most precious personal property: the building blocks of identity, personality and tendencies we may not even realize we have.

It’s not as if we haven’t been steadily prepared to take our relationship with the Internet to a new level. Google got the same level of privacy-concern pushback when it launched Gmail nearly eight years ago, introducing the unheard of notion that your mail would be sniffed to serve up targeted ads.

Gmail, of course, is now a rousing success, and it ushered in the rest of Google’s eco-system — Google Docs, Google Calendar and ultimately Google+. It also helped create Facebook, only slightly more than a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye when Gmail launched. Users of the world’s largest social network seem to have completely recalculated the TMI versus ads equation. Our increased comfort level with this trade-off — my life is “improved” in direct proportion to my transparency and therefore marketability — is the foundation of a cultural revolution of which changes in online mores are only a part.

Both Google and Facebook — which just forced Timeline on members — know that the future is about circulating as much currency from everyone’s social graph as possible. After all, Google is only now surfacing Google+ in its search results. And they both know that if they treat this privilege with the proper respect, we will just let them do it.

And though there will be missteps and adjustments and things we didn’t foresee, the privacy debate will recede and even become boring. Because eventually we’ll grow more comfortable with what I suspect the debate is really about. If you’ll allow me one wild, psychobabble musing: Could it be that we’re just coming to grips with the possibility that Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves?

Photo: Performance art in window of shop … by Dominic Simpson/flickr. Used with gratitude via a Creative Commons license.



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To be honest Dominic I take umbridge about your assumptions embodied in the closing paragraph. In your mind the privacy debate may well have already receded, however in mine it never will. Nor should it. The fashion in “de-personalisation”, a well maintained piece of social engineering nurtured by corporations and governments alike, has begun to reach a zenith. The clarion calls over SOPA, PIPA and now ACTA have begun to demonstrate how people REALLY feel about much on the internet, with firm reference to their private details and how companies and beneficiaries use them. That Google have chosen to launch their change in privacy details at this time simply demonstrates the will of Corporate America to monopolise, demographise, marginalise and increasingly criminalise users, chasing turnover and profit in the first instance, and more worryingly, helping corrupted authorities to limit powers of free speech, criticism and protest. This is essentially becoming digital Nazism. Some animals are NOT more equal than others, and Google are about to feel the sting of rebuke from many users as the backlash foments over this issue. Why should people like Google and Facebook be automatically entitled to my private details and behaviour patterns? They may well know that their future is about circulating personal currency, but they’re mine, and yours, not THEIR’s. I for one am about to leave Google and find alternatives. I’ve watched enough YouTube and I know my e-mails get read. You can wax forever about the joy of algorithmic correlations “synthesising facts” but that’s exactly what that is: a synthesis, unreal and unrequited. No.

Posted by ripunzelle | Report as abusive

The thing with the linking of remote data is that it taken out of the hands of the individual. With the attacks on privacy being pushed by the national and international security agencies, copiright protection and big business goups, where governments will be able to access information without due legal proces, we should all be very worried with the moves from Google and Facebook.

Posted by aliciamakingit | Report as abusive

Facebook has ads?

Just kidding. Install Adblock + Element Hiding Helper, and then you’ll only get the TMI part.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

It’s quite simple, if you don’t want the internet to know something, don’t use it.

Posted by sweeks6833 | Report as abusive

and has anyone bothered to read Verizon’s Privacy Policy? Boiled down it states if you ‘agree’ you will only receive the ads they feel are relevant re your smart phone activity. If you ‘decline’ you will be plastered with any and every ad. Damned if you do or don’t. Slimy hype.

Posted by ctwdaz | Report as abusive