Google's Watching You: The Good, the bad, the ugly

 

This morning Google announced a change in its privacy policy. I link to the Washington Post article about it because searching Google for "Google Privacy Policy" does not bring up Google's privacy policy as its first result!!! (Okay, it's first if you count the ads... but many of us have trained ourselves to ignore those orange-background ads when we're looking for information!)

Here's a link to the EMail Google sent out this morning. The changes take effect in five weeks, 1 March.

The Good

According to Google, their new policy will do everything but drive your car and polish your shoes. Oh, wait, they're already working on driving your car for you.

Like vitamins, it's good for you. So they say.

Maybe.

It's certainly good for Google as they seek to compete with Apple and others offering more integrated experiences.

It does simplify the privacy policies they currently have, which is like saying that replacing the criminal code with "all crimes are punishable by death" would simplify it. Has anyone outside the legal world ever read a privacy policy (or HIPAA notice, for that matter)?

It will provide for more filtered searching... but I'll deal with that in the Ugly box, below.

The Bad

Google wants to do things in a "Googley" way. They say their motto is "Don't be evil."

Oops.

There's real evil in the world. Unlike Google, I don't want to trivialize the word. So this isn't evil. But it's not very good, either, or very honest on their part in terms of the way they spin it.

Because you can no longer opt out. (Caveat: That's what others are saying about it. I've read the new policy, and there is nothing specific about opting out. However, there is reference to the account dashboard. Perhaps it will let the half of one percent of users who go to the dashboard and understand it to opt out. Perhaps.)

That's the real issue. We may no longer have a choice, or if we do, the choice will be too difficult to entertain for most users.

In effect, Google is issuing us a standard car-parking ticket. There's a contract of sorts printed on the back of the ticket, but there's no negotiation; you either park and accept the contract or don't park. But if you want to park, you get the contract.1

That's bad stuff, in my opinion.

I personally may or may not have a problem with sharing more information with them. What I have a problem with is being forced to do this. I have an even bigger problem with my not-as-tech-savvy family and friends and colleagues and acquaintances being forced to make this non-choice.

The Ugly

The Washington Post article makes the point that if you're searching for "jaguar," you might see "better" (a/k/a targeted or filtered) results if Google knows whether you're interested in the car, the beast, or a Jacksonville football player. Google will adjust the results displayed based on what you've done in the past.

If I'm shopping, that's not terrible. Indeed, it's potentially helpful.

Maybe if I'm from New York, I'll see more articles favorable to the Giants for the next ten days. If I'm from Massachusetts, I'll see articles supporting the Patriots.

That doesn't seem so bad... at first. But let's dig a bit deeper.

Let's say I'm a political animal. Perhaps I get a lot of mail from Move On, or spend time with the Drudge Report. Google already uses this information to select what it shows me when I search. The "Obama" links shown to the Move On reader are very different from those shown to the Drudge browser.

Think about what that does to our already fractured national dialog. If you think Google is being impartial and that's why all the Obama articles point to birther links and Gingrich appeals, you'll be more inclined to accept those "truths"... because "impartial" Google says so. Conversely, if the top links are about dropping unemployment and Bush-caused deficits, you'll be more inclined to accept those "truths" instead... because "impartial" Google says so.

But Obama is the same person either way.

That's what filtering does. And that's ugly.

And Google is promising to do more filtering starting March 1.

We Americans of all political colors scream when we hear that China is censoring the Internet, filtering links, determining what Chinese citizens can and cannot see.

It's time to start noticing (and maybe screaming) that Google is filtering links, determining what you and I do and do not see.2

By the way, it appears Bing (Microsoft) is also filtering. I'm not calling out Google alone here. However, Google is about to take it to the next level, by combining and sifting through a far greater spectrum of personal information.

Ugly, ugly, ugly.

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1There are some laws that limit these contracts a bit, just as some US and EU privacy laws will put a bit of a check on what Google can do. Nonetheless, it's still basically a park-or-don't-park contract.

2Unlike in China, the other links technically do show up, but much further down the page. Studies show that most searchers consider only the top few links. For all intents and purposes, the other links become almost as invisible as if they were truly censored.