Thursday, March 1, 2012

Opinion - The Controversy of Google's new privacy policy

If you keep up with the BBC news, you’ll have heard have the controversy surrounding Google’s new privacy policy. BBC news is a great resource, and although inevitably biased, I have found compared to the newspapers it is by and large a lot more objective. So it was with some dismay this morning when I witnessed a rather embarrassing interview on the morning news with a Google representative.

This representative explained these four points:

  1. The different platforms owned by Google are combining privacy policies. This simplifies things making it clearer to the customer (i.e. us) while allowing appropriate adverts to reach the customers based on what they’ve searched for. If I search for a Spice Girls video on Youtube, then I might find an advert on Gmail for Spice Girl albums (that’s my example, not his).
  2. The advertisers themselves don’t see any of the data collected by Google; they provide the advert and Google chose where that advert appears.
  3. The whole process is sorted with algorithms. You don’t get actual Google employees stalking your online activities and picking adverts for you. If you consider a moment just how many people use Google then you’ll realise this just isn’t feasible.
  4. This system only works if you’re signed in to these platforms with a Google account.
The Google representative had to repeat these points several times to the beleaguered reporters, who didn’t really seem to know much about the issue at large. Worth noting here is the representative was not using jargon speak. Misunderstanding is one thing, but the accusing tones the reporters progressively used in their questions were highly inappropriate. I guess nothing attracts viewers like inviting in a representative of a giant, evil Big Brother corporation right? In reality I think the aggression mounted because they simply weren’t listening to what he had to say.

That’s not all. On the BBC news website ( they display some figures which are obviously meant to shock:

“A poll of more than 2,000 people conducted by the group in conjunction with YouGuv suggested 47% of Google users in the UK were not aware policy changes were taking place”

This is surprising; for the last month at least there has been a banner at the top of the Google platforms announcing the change and inviting the user to view it. I’m not quite sure how the 53% percent of this sample failed to notice this but I certainly wouldn't blame Google for the observational skills of these people. Google's alternative would be to introduce a giant flashing pop-up and I can only imagine how people would react to that.

“Only 12% of British Google users, Big Brother Watch said, have read the new agreement”.

Assuming the sample was truly representative of the whole British population, I’m proud to be amongst that 12%. I use the Google search engine, Youtube, Gmail and of course this blogging website, so I guess it was pretty inevitable. What strikes me however is that 12% actually seems quite high; when you install a program on your computer or sign up to a website, how many of you can actually claim to reading the terms and conditions? Facebook are infamous for changing theirs, but when was the last time you checked?

"Let us not forget that Google is a free service"

It seems to me Google are being attacked for an action despite of which seems to be in the favour of all parties. We the customer only have one privacy policy to read (which should increase the chance we actually read it rather being presented with lots of sporadic pages), and we’re presented with adverts tailored to our interests. On the flip side, an improved advertisement service should also increase Google's revenue. Let us not forget that Google is a free service. If you don't like it then you are free to use other services, and unlike Facebook there are plenty of viable alternatives.

Google is part of a wider trend of merging platforms. My first blog post discussed how the Xbox 360 dashboard and Windows Phones are merging together for a more integrated experience. It seems rather ironic that by keeping their privacy policies on the low these changes managed to escape the notice of mainstream reporters. I can’t help but question just how much fact checking and proactive measures are made in the news industry. Reacting hostilely to measures which Google have pre-warned users about well in advance just isn’t acceptable. You know what they say: you fear what you don't know. You can read the new privacy policy right here:

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