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Posted by on Jan 25, 2012 in Science & Technology, Society | 12 comments

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?


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