Your Most Intimate Partner May Soon Be Google

by David A. Tracy

If you are using a web-based service for free, you are not a customer.  You are the product.

Web sites that provide a service gather information about you.  They use that information to get advertisers who buy the ads you see on your computer screen.  The more information you provide, the more targeted internet advertising you will receive.  And, the more money your “free” service provider will make.

Making a profit selling ads to place on your computer screen is not inherently evil.  But data mining, text analytics and predictive computer modeling become more sophisticated by the week.  At what point does analytics become an invasion of privacy?  Does gathering this type of data need to be regulated?  How do we balance the value of a service against the risk of exploitation by a service provider?   These are the questions that pit electronic privacy advocates against increasingly powerful commercial interests.

The number one provider on most lists discussing this balance (or imbalance) of interests is Facebook.  Last  week Google became number two on the list, with a bullet.  Google announced it was combining more than 70 privacy policies for various products into one policy.   The new privacy policy grants Google the right to combine your personal information across its various products.  This means your search results on Google-owned services will be further filtered by your use of other Google products.  This includes what you watch on YouTube, what you read on Google News, your posts on Google+, your GMail data, your Android phone apps, images you’ve posted to Picasa, and many other Google products.  The changes take effect March 1st.

Google and others say this change will enhance your browsing experience.  Privacy advocates and competitors are crying foul.  They claim Google’s plan to aggregate its information about you through its many platforms and applications violates antitrust laws and consent decrees already in place.  Expect hearings before the Federal Trade Commission and U. S. Congress.

If you have been using Google products privately in ways you have not shared with your spouse (or your lawyer), your Google, YouTube or other search results could unexpectedly call you out.  Google may soon know more about your preferences than your family.

The new privacy policy has no opt-out provision.  However, there is nothing to prevent you from creating multiple email accounts and associating them with different Google services.  This fix is inefficient, and possibly ineffective over time, but it is your only tool for the moment.

Google and other data vendors will continue to shape and control private web content in ever-more invasive ways. When balancing profit and altruism, expect content providers to tip the scales in favor of profit.  We must remain ever vigilant to protect our private information from misuse or abuse, and remain alert to monopolistic practices in the electronic marketplace.  Resistance is not futile.  We will not be unwillingly assimilated.


Updating our privacy policies and terms of service, The Official Google Blog, January 24, 2012

Confessions of a Google junkie (or Privacy, What Privacy), ZDNet, January 27, 2012

Et tu, Google? Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips Blog, January 27, 2012

Google’s watching you:  the good, the bad, the ugly, Lexician, January 25, 2012

Privacy Alert: Google to Share User Data Across Its Services, Consumer Reports, January 25, 2012

EPIC to FTC: Google Search Plus may violate privacy, antitrust rules, Cnet news, January 12, 2012

Google’s Privacy Policy Changes: Revolution? Evolution? Or Confusion?  Lauren Weinstein’s Blog, January 28, 2012