Thursday, 1 March 2012

Google privacy policy: a stranglehold most users are happy to be held in | Technology | The Guardian

Someone's been reading your email. They know what you've been looking at online. They almost certainly have a photograph of your house. If you've got a smartphone, they even know where you've been and what you'll be doing next week.

It's not a new hacking saga, though. It's the standard business practices of internet staple Google, which from Thursday will, for the first time, be able to join together everything they know about you to customise their services and better hone their advertising.

There's a mantra in certain online communities which says that if you're getting a service for free, you are not that company's customer – you're the product. Google's core product is its huge wealth of information on the people who use its services, which allows for the sale of highly targeted and effective advertisements to its users.

The company certainly has no shortage of information to collect. Google has a 78% share of the search engine market, dwarfing by far its nearest rival Baidu, the Chinese search operator. Around 350 million people use its gmail product, and some 3bn videos are played every day on Google-owned YouTube.

Google has around half of the global smartphone market, and can collect location information from the devices. It even has a fifth of all internet browsers, and almost half of the online advertising share.

The search giant has been able to use the troves of information collected from these platforms for a long time. Google's computers "read" the content of all its users' emails to hone the adverts that run alongside. Search engine history is used to learn about what kind of person you are and how you use the web, to better target adverts and to deliver better results.

From this week, all of this information can be linked together. Information gained from your phone could be used to deliver a local ad in your online search results. A YouTube history consisting of karoake singalongs may be used to inform recommendations of nearby bars on your smartphone. An email to a friend saying "I'm pregnant!" could conceivably lead to some maternity-wear ads elsewhere.

Google says its changes to privacy policies are largely aimed at simplification. Each of the company's 70-plus services has had a separate policy until now, and these are being amalgamated into one. The policy will increase Google's ability to monetise its audience, but also improve personalisation and delivery of results and contents. There is a win-win side to the changes.

But not everyone is convinced. The EU is to investigate Google's new policy to see if it complies with tough Europe-wide data protection regulations. Others are troubled by the slow creep of Google's collated information, and how it uses it – never moving in big steps, but always advancing.

Google has run afoul of regulators on several occasions for collecting too much data. It's Street View service – which takes pictures of millions of streets around the world and ties them with its mapping service – was taken to the supreme court in Germany for invasion of privacy in 2011. Google won its case, but abandoned plans to expand the service in the country, partly due to this opposition.

Street View faced another scandal when it emerged that private details of people's wi-fi networks were being collected by its camera cars, leading to all such data collection being stopped. Last year, the Guardian revealed that Google – just like Apple – had been tracking the movements of people using its Android smartphones.

One fear for Google's rivals is that the company's huge reach across search, mobile, video, social networking and advertising makes its vast cache of information almost impossible for smaller or more focused rivals to compete.

Its dossier of information on its users also proves a source of concern to online activists. The US-based company is subject to search orders from the US government for any user, regardless of their nationality. Like other online businesses, Google complies with orders from governments. This was seen in a high-profile subpoeana for the email information of the WikiLeaks supporter Jacob Applebaum. If a subpoena is sealed, a user may never even be told that their details have been handed over. Google is, however, transparent in revealing how many information requests it gets. Between January and June 2011, it was asked by governments for data on 25,000 of its users worldwide, and complied in handing over the information in around 19,000 of the cases. The US government asked for details on 11,057 users, while the UK authorities asked for 1,444.

It's possible for users to opt out of Google's new privacy policy – at least partially – though it's fiddly to do. This prevents the information being used for advertising purposes and means it will be made anonymous after 18 months, but it doesn't prevent access by authorities.

A small rival search service, DuckDuckGo, is marketing itself through a policy of not tracking its users, nor tailoring results to individuals (known as "bubbling"), which it says can lead to users only being shown information they agree with, rather than seeing the full plethora of opinion on the web.

For most users, however, there is clearly an acceptance of the trade-off of receiving high-quality, innovative, web services for free in exchange for giving the company the right to monetise the information it gathers in the process. This is the trade-off that makes the free web work – including the Guardian.

The concern unique to Google's case is its scale. Opting out of the Guardian is relatively straightforward, but avoiding Google is far more difficult.

For a young company, Google has come a long way. Its early and famous mantra of "don't be evil" evolved into an "evil scale" in 2006, when the company decided that offering filtered search results in China was the lesser of two evils, and so acceptable.

The decision for Google's users with this new privacy change, and others in the future that will doubtless follow, is whether the company remains the lesser of evils – and whether they're willing to forego the services it so ably provides if they feel it's not.

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