Like it or not, Google, in its sixty or so manifold services and its status as the six-hundred-pound gorilla of the Internet industry, is a part of the life of anyone who uses the Internet. So when Google changes the way it deals with information it obtains from its millions of users, it is a big deal. Starting last January, Google began announcing a major policy change to be implemented March 1, to consolidate the various privacy policies and information it gathers from users. In a nutshell, Google said it was knocking down a lot of walls that had been in place between its different services. Just to keep things specific, I will use as examples three of the services I often deal with.
Google’s search engine is my default on all my browsers, and I rarely use anyone else’s engine. I also view YouTube occasionally, which was purchased by Google several Internet eons ago, way back in 2006. And the blog you are reading operates through Blogger, also owned by Google. All we have to go on is what Google says, but presumably before the change in policy went into effect on March 1, the things I inquired about on Google’s search engine were known to the search-engine division, but not the YouTube or the Blogger divisions, and likewise with information on me in the other two divisions. Now, however, Google has merged all the lowdown on Karl David Stephan into one dossier, which contains information on everything I do with any of Google’s five dozen services. Why did they do this?
There are nominal reasons and real reasons, and the two probably overlap. The nominal reasons, which Google touted in its announcements, are that it is silly for people to have to deal with upwards of sixty different privacy policies when Google can come up with one uniform policy for all its services. Also, sharing information among services can improve their quality. One commentator said that for example, while you are doing a Google search, maybe now you’ll come across a little item reminding you that in half an hour you have an urgent appointment that you put on your Google calendar. To some people this would be a welcome reminder, but for me it would be both annoying and a little creepy, like a ghostly secretary I never hired.
The real reasons stem from the fact that at bottom, Google is a profit-making enterprise. This is in itself neither necessarily good nor bad, but it is a very useful fact to bear in mind whenever one is trying to figure out why Google does anything. From this viewpoint, one of the real reasons is that the change will allow Google to be more effective in selling advertising. Instead of telling Joe the Plumber (or whoever) about a new kind of pipe wrench only when he does a Google search for pipe wrenches, Google can now put ads for pipe wrenches next to the cat videos Joe likes to watch on YouTube. I blogged on this sort of thing some time back when I started seeing ads for a particular kind of hardware I had searched on previously, showing up in a totally unrelated web search of mine. But you get used to it, I guess.
Google’s revised policy is not without controversy. In Europe, for example, where laws regarding privacy are typically much more restrictive than in the U. S., the European Justice Commissioner has stated his opinion that Google’s new policy violates European laws. And even in the more easygoing U. S., some senators and state attorneys general have raised their eyebrows at the changes, although things haven’t moved to the point of formal hearings or lawsuits yet.
This kind of issue has arisen before in many contexts: with regard to privacy of a person’s mail, or phone conversations, or bank account. As I understand things, it is a federal crime for a postal employee to divulge information about what kind of mail a person receives. As for private telecommunications and banking networks, it is in the interests of those organizations to protect their customers’ privacy, because significant violations would result in a loss of business, especially in today’s deregulated world.
The case is somewhat different with Google, which is as close to a monopoly as I can think of for any modern industry. Historically, the Internet has thrived on minimal government interference, either positive or negative. The industry grew largely without government support (except for some very early R&D work), and has remained largely free of regulation or taxation, which may partly account for its generally efficient and benign presence in most peoples’ lives. It would be a shame if the U. S. government adopts some heavy-handed attitude that would stifle the mostly good job that Google has done in exploiting business opportunities while benefiting its customers in many ways.
On the other hand, any major policy change by Google affects all of us whether we like it or not. As long as the changes stay at the level of advertisements and little enhancements of services, I personally do not have much of a problem with them. I can imagine a dystopic scenario in which Google is taken over by some evil Big-Brother-type dictator, who uses information from Google’s databases to wipe out all left-handed red-headed libertarians, for example, or some other group. But such a thing is hard to imagine, and it was the late R. J. Neuhaus who liked to say that a person (or a corporation) is seldom more innocently employed when they are simply making money.
So I have decided to live with the new Google privacy policies, because I have little choice to do otherwise. But it is appropriate that we at least examine them closely and be aware of any signs that they are being used in a way that is inimical or unfair. So far, however, I haven’t noticed anything like that. Five days isn’t much to go on, though.
Sources: Besides the official announcements Google has been posting about its privacy-policy changes, I consulted articles published in TechWeek Europe at http://www.techweekeurope.co.uk/news/reding-google-privacy-policy-is-illegal-64637 and cnet. com at http://howto.cnet.com/8301-11310_39-57388626-285/five-ways-googles-unified-privacy-policy-affects-you/.