I got a frantic voice mail from my mom this week. It went a little something like this: “Honey, I need to you call me back right away. I want to know what Google is collecting about me and why.” This is the same woman who asked me what I meant by “double-click” just a decade ago, so I consider this good progress.
But weren’t they doing that already?
Yes, they were. This just now makes it perfectly clear that they are and consolidates some of the sources of that data so they can use it in new and exciting ways. User data is a fundamental piece of what makes the internet what it is and how it gets better. Google’s Director of Privacy for Products and Engineering calls it “effectively using your data to provide you with better service.” The new policy now combines your search history, YouTube and other Google service activities seamlessly with your account. It is all in the name of offering you more targeted, efficient and better service (and, of course, advertisements). From a business perspective, this makes absolute sense.
And in the other corner, we have the user perspective.
The whole thing seems a bit Orwellian for many and they don’t want anyone tracking their every internet move. Knowing that someone is watching your every move is creepy, even if it does make your user experience better. Google says you can use its privacy tools to turn off or modify your search and YouTube history, choose to use their services by not signing in or just stop using Google altogether. In a world where “google yourself” has become part of our vernacular, that last one seems like a tall order. Will people stop using Google altogether? Probably not. Some might. And many are waiting to see just what Google does with this data and if it handles it responsibly.
So what does this mean for the average user?
I like Jay Cline’s Computerworld article that describes this Google privacy news on a Richter scale model. He sees the collection and tracking of customer data in the current Google privacy change as a 3 on the Richter scale: “A lot of data is being collected, but it's being used to sell people stuff. They don't have to buy the stuff, and they might actually like the stuff, so it's not clear what harm has been caused or where liberty or dignity has been irreparably lost.” Cline does acknowledge that if Google mishandles the mass quantities of data it could cause damage that registers much higher on the Richter scale. He underscores the huge responsibility Google now has to handle the data appropriately. And I think mishandling of the data is what many are worried about. But Cline doesn’t think the current iteration of the policy will hamper anyone’s liberty or cause irreparable damage. He, like many others, point out that if you don’t want to use Google services, then don’t.
Many point out that these services are free and users agree to use them. Scott Goodson broadcasts the reminder “If You’re Not Paying for It, You Become the Product” in his March 5 Forbes article. In a recent ZDNet piece, Eileen Brown said the new consolidated policy makes good business sense. Google offers these services for free. And because of that, it needs to rely on advertising. If you don’t like it, you can walk away: “You signed up to access different Google software products. No one forced you to. You accepted the privacy terms when you signed up. You accepted the fact that the terms might change someday. And Google is still not forcing you to sign up. It is your choice.”
But who will speak for the users?
Plenty feel this new policy change is heading privacy for a huge iceberg. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the company. 37 US state attorneys sent a letter to Google’s CEO to outline the invasion of privacy issues they have with the new policy. They noted that some Google users have no choice but to continue to use some of the company’s services. France’s privacy regulator, CNIL, said all its experts can’t figure out what Google would be doing with the data now that they weren’t doing before. This privacy discussion is far from over.
What if you don’t want all your activity monitored?
You can minimize the amount of data collected, while still using Google’s wide array of services. If you are concerned, don’t be logged on when you watch things on YouTube, use Google’s search engine and use other services. Keep in mind that those things you are used to being tailored for you won’t be when you aren’t logged in. Delete your search history and actively manage your account and privacy settings. If you want to be totally out of the game, you can stop using Google services. You will have to weigh that option with the benefits that come with the company’s array of free services.