/ 26 January 2012

Searching for privacy

Searching For Privacy

You could almost feel sorry for Google’s management team lately. Their every move draws stinging criticism from the media, regulators and customers. The latest kerfuffle? Google is changing its privacy policies on March 1.

Now, website privacy policies are generally like Ayn Rand novels and the government gazette: a good cure for insomnia. Almost no one reads them except the terminally punctilious and the professionally obligated.

But these impending changes are worthy of our attention, if only so that we all understand them. Essentially, Google is giving itself the explicit permission to share your private data between any of its other services that you may use.

Google’s sales pitch about the change is predictably sunny: this sharing will allow it to present you with more finely tailored (and thus more useful) information and options.

Say you’ve been Googling varieties of apple all morning, searching for that perfect pie ingredient. When you visit YouTube (which Google owns) it might suggest videos along the lines of “How to make awesome apple pie”. More importantly, it will not suggest a video of Apple Corporations’ latest financial results.

Where this gets a little muddy, and perhaps a little scary, is when your Gmail conversation with your mom about your longing to visit Bali results in adverts for “Holiday deals: Indonesia”, following you around Google News and Google+ for the next two weeks.

Yet Google has already been doing this sort of thing, if on a smaller scale, for years. Since advertising makes up over 95% of its revenues, the company has a strong incentive to make those adverts as effective as it possibly can.

Google has millions of servers around the globe, sitting in vast air-conditioned data centres that cover square kilometres of land. The company employs over 20 000 people — many of them the brightest and best in their fields. Who do you think pays for all of this?

The data that you give Google every time you search for something, send an email via Gmail, click “+1” on a funny article or watch a YouTube video — that data is the currency that pays for your experience.

And this doesn’t just apply to Google. Any of the great “free” services you use every day — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, MXit — they are all harvesting your every action and using it to better understand you.

They’re also bundling all that data together and using it to better understand whole demographic swathes. Facebook, for instance, can tell you with great certainty what the most popular band is among 120-million 18-year-olds around the world.

This may horrify you, but then you should reconsider all the credit and store cards you have in your wallet. You should throw away your cellphone and de-list your home number and address from the white pages. All of those technologies are more intrusive than anything Google currently does.

The mother grundies do make one good point: Google has made the privacy change mandatory. There is no way to opt out of the wider data sharing — if you want a Google account then you must agree to it.

Of course there’s a simple answer for those who can’t accept such flagrant tyranny. Either close your Google account, or don’t open one in the first place. You can still use many of Google’s most popular services — its search engine, its news service — without an account.

Alternatively, you can simply have some sense and take responsibility for your own actions. Googling your embarrassing medical condition on your work laptop just before that big board meeting is a dumb idea. You can’t blame Google if the website you visit as part of your presentation invites you to “Experience relief from haemorrhoids”.

Let’s be clear — I’m not in favour of giving Google any free passes. When it acts like a bully by favouring its own Google+ service in search results, I think we should all voice our dismay. A move like that affects search results (and thus customers) negatively.

But a change in privacy policies that makes the whole bargain a lot clearer is not something worth throwing our toys out of the cot about. Google provides the services and we pay with a percentage our privacy. Google gives you plenty of options about how and where your info can be used. It’s your responsibility to understand and act on those options.

Unfortunately for Google, factions of both the tech press and the US government seem hell bent on painting it as the great Satan of the web, regardless of the facts.

Yep, you could almost feel sorry for the Google management team. Until you remember they are a group of millionaires (and billionaires) in charge of a thriving multinational corporation. Shame.

Follow Alistair on Twitter – @afairweather

A previous version of this column implied that Google had removed Twitter’s real-time content from its search results. In fact Twitter chose not to renew a content sharing agreement with Google.