"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Don’t Be Evil–Time for Google to Rethink Its Motto

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There are two articles in the Washington Post today on Google and its new policy to unify its information collection activity, linking Google Search, Gmail, and YouTube among other platforms.  I will excerpt from the articles, for I have gone on record here to voice my strong opposition to what the company is doing and how important it is to have a web-based counter attack.  The first is on the business deal between Google and Verizon, but goes into detail about the invasion of privacy issue (http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/maybe-its-time-for-google-to-rethink-its-dont-be-evil-motto/2012/01/25/gIQAAS0XRQ_story.html):

“Don’t be evil.” That’s Google’s unofficial motto, in case you didn’t know. In 2004, when the company went public, its founders even based the company code of conduct on the phrase, which has since become known as the “Don’t Be Evil’” manifesto.

For a long time, it was easy to believe that Google was walking the walk. The company regularly spoke out in defense of openness and against censorship on the Internet, choosing its values over potential profit by leaving China and becoming a force in Washington by acting to oppose the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act.

But was all that just an act?

It’s clear that Google has had to evolve as its position has slipped. It has had to become more than agile — it has had to become wildly aggressive. Slowly but surely, we’ve watched Google try to find a way into spaces where its search is increasingly less relevant.

That’s where Google+ comes in. Google+, unveiled in June, is the company’s first real answer to Twitter and Facebook.

A few weeks ago, Google made one of the biggest changes to its search product. If you happened to be signed in to your Gmail account, Google search began including — no, not just including, but promoting — Google+ links inside of your search results. Sure, you can turn off this personalized search feature, but many users might not know how. So if you had searched for Ryan Gosling, it might have also displayed information about other people named Ryan that you’re friends with or showed you images that your friends have shared at the top of image results.

In short, it started seriously messing with “true” search, the search that had been largely untainted; the search based on algorithms, not allegiances; the search we expect from Google.

I think most users would argue that this makes finding what you want harder, less diverse and more insulated. The experience feels suffocating to me, like I have to fight through Google+ results to see the “real” stuff.

Google search has, until now, represented the Internet giant’s biggest gift and most valuable contribution to the Web — a place to find things untouched (or at least mostly untouched) by greedy hands.

This week, Google announced another radical change to Google search — but this time on the back end. It said that beginning March 1, Google would begin integrating information about searches you run while signed into a Google account, including your Android phone, with data from 59 other Google products such as Gmail and YouTube. Google says there’s a way to turn off your search history — but you have to do it in at least three places. The only absolute way to prevent giving Google enough information to build a digital dossier of your life is to close your account.

The real problem is that Google’s search policy shift and the change in its privacy policies suggest a shift in core values at the company — values you didn’t need a road map to figure out a few years ago. Those were values that placed the user first and stood in stark contrast to monopolistic practices of companies like Microsoft in the 1990s.

They were Google Values, and they felt right. They felt good.

If Google can’t see how perverse some of its decisions look today by comparison, maybe it’s time to rethink the company motto.

The second article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/faq-googles-new-privacy-policy/2012/01/24/gIQArw8GOQ_story.html) is a FAQ sheet about Google’s new policy:

What is Google doing?: In a nutshell, Google is taking information from almost all of your Google services — including Gmail, Picasa, YouTube and search — and integrating the data so that they can learn more about you. Google Books, Google Wallet and Google Chrome will retain their own additional policies, partly for legal reasons, but Google could still integrate data from these services.

What kind of information are they collecting and integrating?:

Google collects and can integrate almost anything that’s already in the Google ecosystem: calendar appointments, location data, search preferences, contacts, personal habits based on Gmail chatter, device information and search queries, to name a few.

Can they do that?: Well, under the company’s current privacy policies for some of its properties, Google says it can “combine the information you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services.” The privacy policies for YouTube and search history, however, did not have such language. Now they do and the company has now made its ability to combine information across these and its other services more explicit.

Why is Google doing this?: Google says it will be able to do a lot more “cool things” when it combines information across products. There’s “so much more that Google can do to help you” if you share your information with them.

When do the changes take effect?: March 1.

Can I opt-out?: No.

So what do I do if I don’t like the policy?: You can close your account. Google has provided information on how to take all of your personal information off of Google by closing your Google Account, which would erase your Gmail, Google+ and other accounts.

But I have a lot of data saved on Gmail/Picasa/etc...: Google says it is committed to “data liberation” and that it will allow you to take your information elsewhere if you want to. The company said it would provide directions on how to do this in the help sections for its various services.

I don’t have a Google Account, but use Google search. Am I affected?: No. The new policy only applies to people who have a Google Account linked to services such as Gmail, Picasa or YouTube and are signed in.

As I have written previously, there are many players active in the invasion of Internet privacy: 1) Internet companies like Google and Yahoo who have the power to collect vast amounts of personal information about each user, bundle it, and sell it to private companies who will then buy targeted advertising; 2) Sales companies like Amazon who are big enough to collect information on their own and who then use it to precision-target advertisements; 3) Service companies like insurance companies in whose interest it is to collect health-related information on individual consumers; 4) consumers who like receiving personalized advertising and who therefore see no reason to object to tracking cookies; and 4) the US Government, local and other police who have a vested interest in surveillance and tracking either in the name of stopping terrorism or criminals or both.

A concerted effort must be made:

1. Locate the many non-profit agencies organized to protect free speech and the free flow of information.  They often have links directly to those members of Congress responsible for pending legislation.

2. Write directly to Google.  This type of grassroots campaign was successful in getting Netflix to rollback its streaming-DVD policy.

3. Boycott Google.  Bing as a search engine and Yahoo as an email server are just fine.

4. Read more about the pernicious links between and among the four players’ programs, above; i.e. how traffic cameras, store monitors, GPS device tracking, cell phone monitoring, Internet tracking can and have been themselves unified to build invasive profiles of American citizens.

5. Be alert to how your keystrokes are being tracked and used.

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