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Google's privacy policy change: What the fuss?


Because Thursday is Data Privacy Day, and thanks to Google's new privacy policy, Tuesday was “You’ve Lost More Privacy Day,” Helen Popkin and I began a dialog, one that will continue tomorrow in an open chat with readers.

From: Helen Popkin

To: Bob Sullivan

Given that the privacy policies for all Google products just got put in a BlendTec, and Facebook, Twitter and MySpace programmers have put together the “Don’t Do Evil” search engine, is it time to talk about what Google is really risking here?


From: Bob Sullivan 

To: Helen Popkin

I have two immediate thoughts.

1) I think most users believed this “shared across all Google properties” thing was already true.  I mean, maybe you don’t quite connect YouTube video with Gmail ... but your Gmail ads already “read” your email. So what if they reflect recent videos you’ve watched, too?  I think this idea of data sharing across divisions is standard across financial services companies (why Bank of America customers get offers from Merrill Lynch). In other words, is this *really* new? Remember the old Larry Ponemon privacy interest scale which says that 60 percent of Americans say they care about privacy, but their actions belie their words; 33 percent say, “I have nothing to hide?” and only 7 percent are really privacy activists willing to take steps to protect their privacy. I suspect most users won’t notice this change, or if they do, it won’t be enough to nudge them to change their search engine habits.

2) The risk Google is taking here — and I think it’s a big one — is in blending Google Plus contributions with its search algorithm. Google Plus is still largely populated by early adopters, and many of them went there seeking greater privacy controls than Facebook had at the time G+ launched. Now, many avid social networkers there feel betrayed. While the general population tends to forget such insults, early adopters do not.  Many of them are privacy activists, and it’s very bad form to anger your early adopters. On the other hand,’s Danny Sullivan says that most of the frustration on this point isn’t from Google users — who haven’t complained much at all — but rather from wonks who are raising issues about it. (Read more about this issue here.)

3) OK, a bonus thought. At a time when Facebook is offering more granularity in its privacy settings (such as they are), Google is killing granularity here. Couldn’t you see some people being OK with all this sharing as long as YouTube wasn’t included? What about the contents of Google docs? If a user finds any of this spooky, there’s nothing he or she can do about it. And that’s trouble. 

4) OK, bonus thought two: There’s a steady, sad progression where companies like Google and Facebook encroach more and more on privacy, see what kind of firestorm they have to endure, and then try something else. I fear they are learning that the bar for really causing a cause celeb online is very, very high. Bit by bit, these large Web companies are becoming more emboldened by each incident like this.

5) Last bonus thought. I wonder if Google’s positive vibes from SOPA (“Hey, those Google folks stood up for us against the government!”) will afford the firm a partial mulligan for this.


From: Helen Popkin

To: Bob Sullivan

1) Blah blah blah. If we really cared about protecting our personal information, "password" wouldn't be a popular password and IT managers wouldn't have to enforce regularly changed and increasingly complicated log-ins that require both lower-case and capped letters, numbers, some sort of punctuation, and, I predict in the near future, wingdings. What we really want is a fat lady in a painting to guide us through our stuff, like them lucky kids in Gryffindor, but I digress.

Your average technology layperson won't care about Google's user data and privacy policy integration until #GoogleIsEvil starts trending on Twitter.

2) Re: "The risk Google is taking here – and I think it’s a big one — is in blending Google Plus contributions with its search algorithm." See above.  

That said, Google is for sure getting desperate — hence collating its user data and privacy policies into one super product, while screwing other social networks via its new social search. "Facebook" is increasingly replacing of "Just Google it," in how we operate on the Internet,  and Facebook is capitalizing on its increasing presence as a portal of information by actively courting news outlets, as well as other sorts of information sites — along with e-commerce, of course — to create a strong Facebook presence to attract clicks.

3) Re: Granular privacy settings. Many people are still operating under Facebook's default settings (which are open to share the most of your info). We like privacy as an idea but in reality, we barely notice. It's a fact of Internet life people are already inured to — the Antiqued Pine Provence Bed, handcrafted in vintage pine reclaimed from floor joints of early 20th-century Midwest barns, which I'll never buy nonetheless haunts via ads on most any non-ecommerce website I visit hours after I leave the Sundance Catalog website where it lives, just because I clicked on the ugly-ass, overpriced  thing once. Once! (Ok, maybe twice.)  Such benign following we hardly notice, and it's right in our face.

It's not new that your Google search results are impure — your results are already based on your previous Internet behavior. Google's social search just makes that gated Internet community even smaller. Facebook, for all its Google smack talk, does the same thing. People are getting more and more of their information from Facebook, but what we see first on Facebook is based on our clicking behavior on that site, and off as well, depending on how much you've locked down your Facebook privacy.  

4) Google, Facebook etc., are always seeing what they can get away with. Check out how much both those companies are increasingly spend on D.C. lobbying budgets. Google spent $9.7 million on lobbying in 2011, up 88 percent from 2010. Facebook spent comparatively modest $1.4 million — but it's a 284 percent more than Facebook's 2010 lobbying budget.

Neither of those amounts are insane compared to other monoliths — Big Pharma is in the triple-digit millions — but those budgets gets bigger every year. Corporations that lobby are also more likely to spend money to get legislation to bend their way than to actually throw it in to something that benefits their customers.

5) Will Google lose its positive SOPA vibes? Sure, if Facebook has its way. As we saw with SOPA, if you rile up the masses via viral Facebook posts and trending hashtags, anything's possible. As you've already mentioned, Facebook, working with Twitter and MySpace (tee-hee), built a search bookmarklet to circumvent Google's social search — which throws those sites to the dogs — and called it "Don't Be Evil," mocking the guiding principal Google famously declared early on. Oh snap Facebook, Twitter and MySpace!

It's not the first time Google's had this thrown in its face, but "evil" is exactly what grabbed everyone's attention with SOPA, if another company can make "evil" stick to its competitor, what better way to sway public opinion.

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about privacy and then asks her to join her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+. Because that's how she rolls.

Here’s a lot more reading material on Don’t Do Evil and the rest of the issues raised by Google’s announcement:

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