Opinion: Google's privacy change - evil or business as usual?

Filed Under: Google, Privacy

Google announced in a blog post on Tuesday that it will start tracking us across all its services - Gmail, Search, YouTube, etc. - and that it will share data on our activity across all of them.

They dressed up the news in a typically cutesy video:

Google says it's condensing its 60+ privacy settings into one easier-to-understand and more transparent document, which will subsequently pave the way for the company to merge its products into a more integrated and intuitive user platform.

In other words, as Mashable's Kate Freeman puts it, Google "needed to give itself permission to sync your products in the future."

Google already integrates a bunch of its products. Its recently launched personal search feature, for example, is now ferreting out answers not only from the web, but from our personal grab bags. If you search for restaurants in Munich, returns might include Google+ posts or photos from your albums or from those shared by others with you.

Googling restaurants

Google's envisioning much more. Try not to fall off your chair when I tell you it's going to translate into more targeted ads.

An example: It's January. You're a couch potato. You do not care about fitness ads, so you will no longer receive fitness ads. But you might get a reminder that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

As Google says:

People still have to do way too much heavy lifting, and we want to do a better job of helping them out.

The changes are scheduled to take effect on March 1, and they've got some citizens of cyberland screaming like it's a coming apocalypse and ushers in the end to the goody-two-shoes Google motto: "Don't be evil."

Google hornsAn example: Gizmodo's headline reads "Google's Broken Promise: The End of 'Don’t Be Evil'."

Gizmodo's Mat Honan explains thusly why they're interpreting this move as proof that Google's sporting a 666 somewhere on its scalp:

Google changed the rules that it defined itself. Google built its reputation, and its multi-billion dollar business, on the promise of its "don't be evil" philosophy. That's been largely interpreted as meaning that Google will always put its users first, an interpretation that Google has cultivated and encouraged.

Granted, Mr. Honan has a point: Users can't opt out of this. If putting users first is requisite for not being evil, then yes, I would agree with Gizmodo. I guess we can say Google is tiptoeing toward Hell. But it's not the first time Google has been devilish. And it won't be the last.

Let's not forget, the multi-billion dollar business Google has built was done under the rules of capitalism.

In this market structure, ethics aren't encouraged in public corporations, and are downright illegal if they conflict with profits.

Anybody who's seen the documentary "The Corporation," will realize how foolish it is to expect a corporation to have any kind of loyalty to not doing evil.

Dont be evilAnybody who swallowed the "Don't be evil" motto likely also believes that Apple slogan, the grammatically incorrect "Think Different" ad campaign that touted independent thinking, coming out of a company that's as grimly profit-motivated as its supposedly buttoned-up PC opposite.

Anyway, did we really think Google was purely interested in its customers' well-being, even after the company was fined $500 million for allowing Canadian pharmacies to use its Adwords system to market pharmaceuticals to American consumers?

Google's using our information. It's been doing it quite a while. It makes money from advertising. It's good at building new ways to do that.

Evil? Or business as usual?

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29 Responses to Opinion: Google's privacy change - evil or business as usual?

  1. Business as usual. I am fine with it and actually expect it. As for being able to opt out; I have never seen a online privacy policy I could opt out of. You would have to not use the service to "opt out".

    • Tom Henderson · 818 days ago

      Yeah. Business as usual. You've been beaten up so many times that you start to welcome it. You opt out of it by not going there. Flip them the bird on the way out for robbing you of your dignity and privacy. No.... expediency rules your world. You know what to do. Do it.

  2. DogAngel · 818 days ago

    The next thing will be they just stick a cjhip in use when we are born, and that'll mean the Government makes the money selling our info!

    I wonder if stoppingusing Google would work?
    Maybe a day like last week when sites were down, maybe we could all stop using it,
    change our email services to another company,
    that way they'd loose alot of icome and couldn't afford all this sly intergration,

    Did we kill Hilter? or is he secretly working with "The big guys" and the finacial world to topple us that way. and then take over the world when it crashes........

  3. CCccc · 818 days ago

    The "Canadian" was a con artist from the USA posing as a Canadian working for the feds (USA)....re: the $500million fine:
    http://gizmodo.com/5879207/how-the-government-hir...

  4. Paul Parkinson · 818 days ago

    I've been a fan of Google for a long time. I love gMail, Reader, Maps, Docs.

    My distrust of their motives started with G+. It just seemed very intrusive for what it was purporting to do. Hmmm. I thought they would still be operating under "Don't Be Evil" so it would be okay.

    But now this. I think they have crossed the Rubicon. Don't Be Evil has gone so I have nothing stopping me - as a "senior executive" at Google told the BBC,

    "Then you can give consumers choice - if they don't like Google's privacy policy, they can choose to go to Bing."

    I might just take your advice sir...

  5. varttaanen · 818 days ago

    I, for one, am backing away from google. I've setup new email and contact management. And when the time has come, I'll hit the big Delete button.

  6. Varttaanen · 818 days ago

    I, for one, am ditching google. Set up new email elsewhere and when the time is right, I'll hit the big red Delete button.

  7. I think everyone who uses Google's services needs to get one thing through their thick skulls: Google lets people use their services so they can make money through advertisement. At the end of the day it's their stuff, and we have to abide by their playbook.

    If you don't like what they're doing, they gave us a one-click solution to go download all the data that we have uploaded through Google's services (whether you can really get everything or not I don't know, I've never tried), and another click to basically close down your account. I would think that most readers of this blog have enough skills to basically roll their own deployment of many of Google's services.

  8. nanasrainbows · 818 days ago

    Do no evil? They why do they take down sites that disparage certain political candidates or ideologies but allow the filthy, disgusting, despicable Urban Dictionary definition of Rick Santorum to stand untouched for over 10 years?

    It doesn't get much more evil than that.

    • David Pottage · 817 days ago

      Google search results are just returning relevant links based on what google finds on the internet. If a lot of people are writing unplesant things about a politician on their blogs then natualy those results will appear at the top of any internet search. You will get similar results from any search engine on the internet, as they all work in the same way.

      A similar thing happened a few years ago where searches for "Jew" returned an antisemitic hate site. Google did not censor that result despite the fact that one of their founders is Jewish.

      As for taking down other political sites: Citation Required !

  9. Michael Natale · 818 days ago

    Isn't the opt-out here for users not to use Google's services?

    I for one think there's a hypocritical underpinning to the general outcry against this sort of stuff when everyone seems to believe access to cloud services is some kind of RIGHT. They want all their email, documents, files, music and pictures to be syncing and talking with each other on every device that has a battery or plug, and they want it all for free.

    The price here is obviously giving up some of the privacy over the "stuff" in the cloud. People have to weigh how much they care about that versus how much they want all the stuff Google and other providers give them for "free" and make a decision.

    I dont care or like some of the privacy policies these companies make either, but they dont owe us anything.

    • Dan · 817 days ago

      We're not even really being asked to give up much privacy. Targeting advertising isn't all that evil, especially considering the fact that the companies that are advertising aren't the ones doing the targeting themselves. Google, the company that you already gave your information to, is doing the targeting.

      Unlike some people, I actually prefer the targeting advertising. The ads that annoy me the most are less likely to show up.

      • Josh · 817 days ago

        I agree. The whole outcry about targeted advertising is, for the most part, much ado about nothing. If you don't like the fact that Google makes money off of advertising, and if you don't understand why they would POSSIBLY want to increase that money instead of just maintaining the status quo, then go find another search engine / email provider / whatever.

        This assumption that Google is somehow obligated to provide us with services for free, but can't use the information it knows about us to increase the value of the product it provides (via custom search results) or the revenue it makes (via targeted ads) is so ridiculous that it's childish. If Google can't find ways to better its search results then users go elsewhere. If they can't find a way to increase their value to the advertisers then the advertisers go elsewhere. Simple economics. They have to keep both sides happy.

        Personally I love the personalized search. My results got better overnight. But I suppose if people can't stomach the idea of a company improving its product so that it can make more money then there are lots of other search engines / email providers / social media sites out there. Just don't have a heart attack when they do the exact same thing in a year or two.

        P.S. - For the folks going to Bing, good luck. If you expect Microsoft to be more ethical than Google when it comes to making a $ then you're going to be sorely disappointed.

  10. lee malcolm · 818 days ago

    I can't believe that there has been no comments yet.
    Tell me did you also post this news and commentary on the google+ system.

  11. Dougie · 817 days ago

    I want th option 2 synchronise my own data. I dont want any1 else doing it 4 me. Thats like th censorship scheme comin in without asking....... AS IF THEY WOULD lol

  12. I am in the beginning stages of starting a new business and I've spent some time reading about good social networking practices. I love SME, and I learn something from each article. This one, however, is such a wealth of info, that I too will refer to it again and again! I hope to be reading more of your articles soon. Thank you.

  13. I honestly can't be bothered making any outcry reg. this.

    So long as google is not selling the contents of my emails, I feel they deliver a good service for very little in return.

    I don't conduct any secret business on my G-Apps accounts, and should I want to, it's fairly simple to encrypt the communication as well.

    Honestly, the company has to make money - as long as they deliver great services how they go about it doesn't really matter to me.

    I would feel violated if my emails were accessible by anyone, or if my pictures could be accessed by anyone.
    But as it stands, I feel confident that content I have uploaded, I can also remove again.

    I am advertisement-blind(Unless I specifically look for them) as well, so the service is essentially 100% free for me.

    I feel that as long as you're sensible about these things, you can't go completely wrong. Always have a healthy paranoia going on, and you'll do fine. Just remember what you're doing, and under which conditions. I'm more worried that all the traffic from my country is, more or less, routed through Sweden where the government now has permission to read whatever they feel like.

    • Beth H · 813 days ago

      BFroberg: They are not selling the contents of your email....yet (or to your knowledge)

  14. Mike P · 817 days ago

    I use Virgin Media (in the UK) and their email service uses Gmail. So will all Virgin Media email users be similarly afflicted?

    Sophos could help us by asking questions, Virgin Media do not provide an email address for us to ask them anything!

  15. Sam · 817 days ago

    As you say, business as usual. If I must have ads (and I never take any notice of them) then I'd rather have targeted ads. I've actually read the new policy without falling asleep and it seems pretty reasonable to me, and certainly better than 60 different policies that I never read because they were unreadable! But this is certainly a company that needs an eye keeping on them.

  16. Ben · 817 days ago

    "In this market structure, ethics aren't encouraged in public corporations, and are downright illegal if they conflict with profits."

    It all depends on how big the public corporation is. If I take my car into my local dealership for a routine oil change, I do not expect the dealership to "integrate" a tune-up, brake job, transmission overhaul, etc without my permission. Apparently Google is big enough to ignore moral (if not legal) considerations. Google says it's their right to "integrate" whatever they want into the services they provide. Maybe they do. But is it the right thing to do?

  17. Bacchanalia · 817 days ago

    and I have to say the new terms seem reasonable to me. It is completely unreasonable to expect any organisation to provide free services without some means of paying for it. As others have said, they can provide all the adverts they like, I don't see them, and when I do they easy to get rid of or ignore.

    Now Facebook, all you whingers, do you have Facebook profiles? ...I thought so. Don't whinge about Google until you've sorted out the Facebook evil

  18. CJ · 817 days ago

    Normally I'd agree with the concept of switching services, but this is still a capitalistic structure. If everyone switched services, the new company would just start doing the same over time to gain a competitive edge. There is very little to deter any company from mining personal information besides not using technology. As many have stated, if you use any service, regardless of what it is, you have abide by there rules.

    The true opt out is to no longer use the Internet, but since that will never happen you just try to minimize the damage. Personally, I don't care if company's take all my information. I just wish I knew exactly where my information was going and what was being done with it. I love the one stop shop mentality that Google offers.

  19. NoGoogle · 814 days ago

    I was viewing a YouTube video and suddenly noticed my email address on the screen. That was a shock! Google didn't tell me they were going to take my google id and log me in to YouTube and plaster my information on the screen AND track my activity. NO MORE GOOGLE FOR ME!

  20. mmgate · 814 days ago

    There are soultions to every problem and problems for every solution. We want one thing when its not ours and another when it is. We got angels and we got devils and we have them both in the disguise of the other.
    Truly I have to laugh at all these privacy policies, terms of service, Net Nuturality laws, copyright and piracy laws. The entire lot is a farce.

    In Google's future I see too many anti-trust lawsuits coming around. There are way too many conflicts of interest.

    Do I want a search engine or do I want a social networking site that brings all my other personal and private resources together? I want them seperate from each other!
    If memory serves me right, Yahoo! supposively fail at that, and Mircrosoft? Oddly, I still use both of them.

    Bottom line, If you don't like the rules of the game, take up whale watching! :)

  21. B Danis · 813 days ago

    @Dain Binder: That's idealistic, however Google also tracks every piece of info about you, ip, etc, whether you have an account with them or not.

  22. Dest · 812 days ago

    I don't understand the big deal, if anything Google just made it easier for me to understand how their using my data with 1 policy. Further integration of all my G apps? Bring it on!

  23. Piretto · 404 days ago

    Well I don't see the problem here. I like all googles services and use it daily. Thank you google for providing everything I need in one place, easy to access.
    But of corse, I live a normal life. I don't have any secrets, nothing to hide, no secret agenda, no stolen products, doesn't matter if they use any info about my actions on google, or track my ip-number. I am where I am, no secret about it. Feel free to track me at any time.
    I can not imagine what could be of interest in my actions on internet or any other place. There is nothing to hide. And as long as my copyright-rights and other normal things is respected I'm satisfied.

    It's so easy - if you have a problem with it, then don't use it!!! Stop complaining and do something better instead.
    For example, I have a lot more problems accepting facebooks way of choosing which information I should get and not.....but since I choose to use it, I don't complain.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.