The Not So Great News From The Googleplex

And What It Means To You

Google Meetup

Photo @PCBritz

Google, the “don’t be evil” company, is slipping and sliding along a fibre optic cable that terminates in Dante’s inferno. According to The Guardian:

US regulators are reportedly looking into whether Google manipulates its search results to favour its own products and have expanded the investigation to include Google+.

That’s a far cry from the company mission/vision/mantra in 2004, which is when (Chief Executive) Larry Page told Playboy (emphasis added, tip):

Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model.

I think it’s a conflict of interest, too. That’s the argument I’ve made against Google’s preferential treatment in its search results of content published on Google+ or created by people with Google+ profiles. Then along came Search Plus Your World, which provides a new “Personal Results” view that appears at the top of your screen.

google search plus your world

Search Plus Your World

Danny Sullivan writes:

Search Plus Your World may cause some privacy worries, as private content may appear as if it is exposed publicly (it is not). It might also cause concern by making private content more visible to friends and family than those sharing may have initially intended.

However, this social world is limited to Google+.

In addition, Google has added a question at the end of its search listing: “Want to ask your friends about [whatever you put in the search box]?” The query goes to Google+.

Hence the results manipulation in The Guardian report.

If you’d like to see your non-Google social circle, such as friends from Facebook or Twitter, you’ll need to use this third party app, Don’t Be Evil. (It’s a bookmarklet hidden underneath the “Try A More Relevant Google” link — a clear sign that this site was created by engineers, not anyone with UX expertise.)

But wait. There’s more. And it’s worse.

Google is consolidating its privacy policies — 60 policies into one. That, in and of itself, doesn’t sound horrible. In fact, it sounds customer-friendly.

Here’s the not-so-customer-friendly part:

In addition to consolidating its privacy policies, Google plans on consolidating the data it has about your interactions with its products and the web. As Jessica Guynn, the LA Times, writes:

Google Inc. said it is changing its official policy so it can track users across all Google services including email, Web search and YouTube in a move that could invite heavier scrutiny of its privacy practices.

The new policy, which takes effect March 1, affects hundreds of millions of users who log into Google on their desktops or on their mobile devices. The only way to turn off the data sharing is to quit Google.

You read that right: there is no “opt out” except to ditch Gmail, Google docs, Google-the-search vehicle, Google maps, YouTube, your Android table or phone, and any other product you might use.

Google’s Alma Whitten, Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, writes:

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services.

Google presents this as a way to be nice to its customers. But The Economist warns (emphasis added):

But there are other, unspoken reasons that Google is keen to make this change. By creating comprehensive profiles of users by combining crumbs of data they leave across its services, the firm is betting it can target more online ads at them more accurately. It also wants to position itself as a comprehensive online portal in order to compete more effectively with Facebook, which is soaking up an ever-increasing amount of web surfers’ time.

There’s “portal” again. When it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck …

And from Forbes:

After this Google blog post announcing the company’s new privacy policy went up today, Facebook management was probably breathing a nice big sigh of relief. No longer can they be accused of driving the biggest privacy steamroller, because with today’s announcement an even bigger steamroller is revving up to flatten user privacy.

Gizmodo is blunt (and has had fun with Page and Brin in an illustration):

What this means for you is that data from the things you search for, the emails you send, the places you look up on Google Maps, the videos you watch in YouTube, the discussions you have on Google+ will all be collected in one place. It seems like it will particularly affect Android users, whose real-time location (if they are Latitude users), Google Wallet data and much more will be up for grabs. And if you have signed up for Google+, odds are the company even knows your real name, as it still places hurdles in front of using a pseudonym (although it no longer explicitly requires users to go by their real names).

[...]

So why are we calling this evil? Because Google changed the rules that it defined itself. Google built its reputation, and its multi-billion dollar business, on the promise of its “don’t be evil” philosophy. That’s been largely interpreted as meaning that Google will always put its users first, an interpretation that Google has cultivated and encouraged.

Is such self-serving (“evil”) behavior an inevitable result of organization growth?

What will you do? Say I told you so (because you use some other service)? Shrug and feel powerless? Find alternate services? Call your congressman?

What?

P.S. This is as good a time as any to remind folks about EPIC2015:
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  • zephyr

    Don’t know about evil, but it’s scary enough to anyone whose formative years took place in a culture that valued privacy. I don’t see that any of this improves society or stimulates the creative impulses that gave us so much great literature, music, and art – long before there was anything remotely like an internet. I fear it will just make us more homogeneous, dull, predictable – and vulnerable.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    hi, zephyr – thanks. i agree that we are going to have to rethink privacy. actually, we are going to have to learn to think about privacy instead of assume that it exists.

    here’s another good essay – focusing on relevancy as a bigger problem for google and evil or monopolistic behavior
    http://pandodaily.com/2012/01/23/googles-real-problem/

  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    thanks Kathy, and Zephyr, I agree it does not serve the person, the family, the culture, despite Google’s rhetoric to the contrary

    I think DOJ will soon be at G’s door not only to investigate what they’re doing with data they have no clear permissions to (as their policies keep changing, often without notice) but also to subpoena material in other cases… since Google has stored it and has no press shield.

    As in other cases, (one huge one pending re G and millions of authors it tresspassed on…) In the most recent situ of G announcing it will be aggregating all a priori posts, site visits, etc, the same will be the issue. ‘Opt out’ of whatever G’s latest scheme is not currently an option (again, the m.o. continues to be predictable) And, as always, G says, oooh we’re doing this for you. Sound of G’s cash registers ringing in background) will be pressed to make their latest scheme an ‘opt out’ one… opt out being one of G’s most unfavorite unevil way of doing business.

    If ever there was a true viable alt to G , wherein users have ‘choice’ about what is useful to the themselves, and customized not by fiat– people would leave Google in droves.

    I noted about 1500 comments early over at G+ re G taking down a popular photo painter/formatter as of this coming April, in order to break up its parts …for what reason? People are angry. G says, Oh, we’re going to make it better by breaking it up. They say, as per usual, it is something like :To optimize uh the uh users uh better uh experience. Sure. That’s why people are sharpening their pitchforks bec G is all about people. Really not.

    Next will come gov’t subpoenas to G about any users ‘aggregate.’ It will stand. G is not a news agency; they have no immunity. They are a file carrier of subpoenable data from many many sources. It’s way more than privacy that is at risk… given the gov’t escalating excuses for prying into pp’s business–without notice– since 9-11– under guise of… being ‘all about people’… gosh, big G and little g have something in common it seems.

    Wait til Google is compelled to produce evidence from their ‘aggregate files’ kept on many many private citizens.

    Wait til G ‘accidentally’ as before releases tons of people’s personal info on the net

    wait til the hackers, PI, and nefarious characters get ahold of it all.

    Just at the smallest level of IP addys, ‘anony’ and pseudonyms are going to have a hard time not being aggegated. and potentially revealing their owner’s actual legal names.

  • rudi

    But totally free markets will solve all issues. Monopolies and this kind of thing don’t exist. If these did exist it’s because their efficiencies make markets better…

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    scary stuff

    I got a message that my comment was too short, so here it is again:

    very scary stuff

  • slamfu

    I hear the CIA is saving up its budget to purchase Google. Then they will finally be as scary as everyone thinks they are.

  • ShannonLeee

    Google is saving all of our posts…. be very worried.

    seriously…this entire site probably gets cached

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Hi SL,

    I am not all that savvy about the internet, or “caching” things there (perhaps one of our resident gurus can enlighten me), but I get the feeling that our posts have been “cached” for a while already by Google, and that the same is happening with comments.

    For example google your comment from yesterday, “I thought the title was the he wanted the clap back…which I am sure is something he works on daily” and you will be taken right to it. Now I don’t know if they are using TMV’s caches or their own.

    But I am pretty sure I have been able to access old comments, no longer on TMV, through Google. Again, perhaps someone can explain

  • ShannonLeee

    cached is dork talk for “saved”, but does have a more specific definition :)

    Google will return results from web pages that are no longer online. So they give you their saved copy of the page before it disappeared. So my clap comment will most likely sit on some db server for the next year or two…even if this site were to shutdown tomorrow.

    Facebook does it too…no comment or page modification goes unsaved and it is not deleted from their servers.

    fun stuff

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Thanks, folks. Dr E, can you point me to the G+ discussion you reference?

    Rudi, I’m assuming that was sarcasm. Right?

    SL, Dorian — there is no such thing as “thrown away” when we are talking about zeros-and-ones.

  • ShannonLeee

    I am sure Google dumps data every now and then. I could be wrong, but most companies have a limit to where they feel data no longer has value.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    ShannonLeee – Google is not the only entity that is or can save copies of bits.