When Google started out, it was a groundbreaking new search engine. If you can remember what we had before Google, tools like Altavista or Yahoo, they were a bit clunky and never quite returned what you were searching for.
Google changed search by adding popularity into the secret sauce – if a lot of people link to a page then it must be popular or valuable and these pages were ranked higher in the results. It was a revolution in search, but now the company has branched into many different areas far beyond just search alone. Google now has over 60 services that all have policies and procedures for the way customer data is handled, from YouTube to the Android phone operating system.
From today they are merging all these privacy guidelines into one single policy, meaning that any single Google company can share customer data with all the others.
Data regulators in France are outraged and have launched a Europe-wide investigation into the legality of a company being allowed to do this. Many members of the public have complained about the move as it is seen as an extreme invasion of individual privacy. In theory Google knows where you are because of your phone using Android, who you are calling, who you are texting, what web pages you are reading, what you are searching for, which music you are listening to, and which videos you watch.
There is no opt-out. The only choice for the consumer is to just stop using any Google product, which is now a bit difficult as they have become so ubiquitous.
But I sometimes wonder if the protests go too far. We make a Faustian pact every time we use tools like YouTube or Facebook – don’t forget that they are free. We get great tools that are really useful and help us to communicate, and accept that the companies giving us all these tools will place adverts on the site.
Google is just trying to make sure that the adverts are more relevant. It helps them to sell more ads if the algorithms used to place them are more accurate, and it also helps the consumer because you find that the ads are more closely linked to the things you are interested in.
So there are two sides to this story, but it is worth remembering that someone has to pay to keep the lights on at Google. It’s not a service provided by the government or charity.
Photo by Aray Chen licensed under Creative Commons