Whenever I decide to write about privacy, I always cringe a little. As I’ve said more than a couple of times, privacy is a relatively new idea, has never really existed, and is impossible to legislate. The very idea of privacy is so complicated it makes my head spin.
Joining with Facebook, our friends at Google have decided to help us out and define privacy as simply as possible: at Google, your information is no longer controllable by you and you can’t opt out of whatever way Google decides to use your information.
Now strictly speaking, that isn’t true. Dig through enough settings and you’ll still be able to turn off certain behaviors. But what Google has decided is that you (meaning they) are better served by there being one set of rules that covers all Google products than there being different settings for GMail, Search, Google+, Google Music, Google Docs, Google Analytics, and whatever other Google services you use.
Fair enough. It is hard to manage all those disparate settings, and I’m pretty sure that you, like me, have no idea what different choices you’ve made from one Google service to another. Why not simplify?
Answer: because in “simplifying the process”, Google has taken the position that everything you do on one service is can be shared with everything you do on all services. And that part you have no control over.
There’s a part of me that sees this as a privacy issue, but again, privacy is so nebulous an idea and so much harder to make sense of in a global community that I’m really focused elsewhere. If you have nine minutes to spare, watch the video above, where Eli Pariser, Board President of (left-leaning) Moveon.org, sums up the scary way that Google’s use of your data is creating a system that makes it incredibly hard for you to find what you’re looking for unless you trust Google to know what you mean and what’s best for you. Google is becoming your thought editor.
When Facebook patented the News Feed, I objected based on the ludicrousness of the patent, and to a lesser degree to the very idea that Facebook knew what was important to me. Well, Facebook keeps taking steps toward ending privacy permanently, but be honest: you have no expectation of real privacy on a social networking site, so every time Facebook “helps you share” a bit more you don’t really care; you assume they’ve got your back where it matters.
But Google, despite their efforts to become more social, isn’t a social network—or at least that not how most people think of them. Google is a search engine. And search engines (think encyclopedias) need to be about information, not information that’s been edited to suit the ever-building “profile” of the person asking questions.
Recently, Google introduced a new feature to their search results. With Personal Results (often referred to as “Search Plus Your World“), which is turned on by default, the first thing I see at the top of the Google search results for “answer guy” is this:
Interesting, potentially useful (albeit flawed; neither Chris Brogan nor Jason Calacanis—the two guys whose pictures appear after mine—actually referenced “Answer Guy” in the posts that are included), and easily enough toggled. I can get “clean” results either by turning Personal Results/SPYR off with the toggle, or by visiting Google in anonymous mode.
But I can’t stop Google from gathering the information in the first place. MY information.
In other words, even if I don’t want that personal information displayed to me, Google is tracking it.
Google claims they won’t share data about me with others. Problem is, I only sort of believe them, because there are lots of things that Google tracks about searches and results even when you aren’t logged in.
Again, mostly it’s not the privacy issue I have a problem with here. It’s that Google is tracking me and then using the information they gather to show me what they think I want to see. And I can’t stop them.
Let’s give only the shortest aside to the implications surrounding where something like that is useful (Google learns over time and becomes a better tool) but simultaneously intrusive (Google, which derives most of its revenue from advertising, shows me search results skewed toward the desires of the highest bidder).
OK, let’s not make that one short. It’s a big problem. It makes Google a monopoly. And the market is YOU.
Still not concerned? Take a look at this article. Google CEO Larry Page is getting adamant about doing things Google’s way when it comes to Search Plus Your World.
I sense a scenario coming where Google, like Facebook, overuses their power. Your Smartphone is recording everything you do, and Google has that information. And it seems, is using it. Think it’s a stretch to Google mimicking Facebook’s “I know what you’re reading” feature and putting that information in search results? Those aren’t search results; they’re garbage.
Serious garbage. Garbage like Jotly and their “Rate Everything” idea. Problematic, like Facebook getting you fired—but easier. And of course, an extension of problems like the total uselessness of web sites like Last Night Never Happened.
And I thought that MegaUpload getting shut down without due process was a problem.
The business change for Google here is obvious. The business change for you might be less so; it has to do with things like business management and Search Engine Optimization. Of course, you can reach us for help with those.
I wonder how much longer Google Customized Search will do anything?