Google, privacy & you (Part 1)

6/1/2012 2:49:57 PM

Google has attracted a lot of criticism for the changes in its privacy policy that it introduced at the start of the month. So, asks Simon Brew, what’s the problem?

Google, in hindsight, might just be regretting that decision to work under an initial guiding mantra of ‘don’t be evil’, as it famously did when it first set out. Appreciating that it’s easier not to be evil when you’re just starting out an by nature a much smaller company, the press that the company has attracted over the past few years has been in stark contrast to its stated aim. From rows over the censorship of material in China, though to the privacy questions increasingly asked in relation to Google’s growing collecting of services, concerns have been raised over just how much power and influence Google has.

Not that you have to look far for the question: ‘a lot’, seems to be the current consensus. Think of everything you type into a Google product, and consider what that says about you. Then remember that it’s more than likely all held on a very big server somewhere. Then try not to panic.

Description: Google, privacy & you

Google, privacy & you


‘If you take it at face value, Google’s intention, at heart, was welcome.’

Most of the fears that people have are centred around, it should be said, what Google could do, given the large amounts of data it holds about our web habits, as opposed to what it is doing. It’s hardly spotless in the way in goes about targeting advertising around us, using our web behaviour to hit us with more relevant ads, whether we’re browsing search results or checking our e-mail. But there’s a strong argument nonetheless that the noise generated by its actions is far more impactful than what’s actually being shouted about. That notwithstanding, there are real, growing fears about Google, and its latest actions have thrown those fears into sharp focus.

If you’re a regular user of Google services, as most of us are, then you’ll have been nagged a little over the past month or two. Well, perhaps nagged quite a lot. You’ll have seen messages from Google when you’re logged into services such as Gmail, or Google Calendar, or YouTube. Those messages talk about the changes to privacy settings that are going to affect you, and Google has been trying very hard to persuade lots of people to read them.

Most of us don’t read them, of course, not least because whenever we head towards terms and conditions, we rarely find anything written in a language that’s possible for most to understand. Legalese is a tongue all of its own, and the idea of wading through page after page of the stuff is hardly something to get you excited. Google knows this, of course, but it has to be seen to be trying, and it’s been commended for doing so.

In this instance, if you take it at face value, Google’s intention, at heart, was a welcome one. Such is the range of services that it offers and operates, it wanted to streamline the privacy policies for them into one consolidated document. Thus, instead of having to be aware of umpteen policies, its users need only concern themselves with one.

This affected over 70 of its services, and in its simplest terms, would seem to be a welcome step forward in simplicity. But then that’s face value for you, because what the changes have, in theory, allowed Google to do, is to take data collected in one of its services and use it in another. We’ll come to that in a bit more detail shortly.

What’s changed?

Before that, there’s something we should be straight about from the start. One thing that’s been lost in the furore over Google’s latest changes is this: it doesn’t involve collecting anything over and above the material that Google already gathers at the moment (although, to be fair, it does gather an awful lot). It doesn’t suddenly want to know your inside leg measurement (although there’s a chance it may know that already, we say only half-jokingly. If you’ve ever typed your inside leg measurement into a search engine, then it may well have that information on a server somewhere). This is about what it wants to do with the data it already collects, rather than trying to get hold of any more.

The difference, and it’s a crucial one, is in how it’s organised, and across how many services Google can use it. Whereas before, for 70 or so individual services to use your information, you had to enter it 70 different times, now Google only needs to get hold of it once.

Thus, whereas before, for example, Gmail and YouTube both collected information about you, and stored it, those two services worked independently of one another. User information was held in different locations, and what you did on one service had no ramification on the other.

With the new changes, things will be different, and from Google’s point of view, it’s arguing that a union of its service policies will better serve end users. So if you’re regularly watching videos of football matches on YouTube, for example, it can alter the targeted ads in your Gmail account accordingly. Perhaps more helpfully, if you regularly e-mail somebody using a Google service, and then write their name as part of a Google Docs file, then Google will be able to check that the spelling is correct. Or if you search for a word with two meanings, then, over time, Google will learn which is the more appropriate to you. It’s little features like that which Google is keen to promote.

The benefits

As for the privacy policy itself, Google’s argument is that this is more straightforward for end users too. On its special YouTube video to promote the changes, Google boasts of ‘fewer words, simpler explanations, and less legal gloop to wade through’. It makes the whole, as a result, ‘more consistent’, and ‘easier to understand’.

Google account setting

The introductory YouTube clip it’s put together, and no doubt it picks up that you’ve watched it, is keen to sell more of those further benefits. So, for example, by unifying data across its services, Google argues that I can detect when you’re running late for an appointment, and warn you. It does this by cross-checking your calendar, the time and your current location. That’s the kind of feature that one person will find useful, and another may regard as a bit more sinister, certainly. But at least it’s possible to see a tangible advantage to it. Best not to use it if you’ve seen too many episodes of 24, though.

However, to say all this is a gesture of pure benevolence by Google would clearly be false. Pundits are already suggesting that the extra ammunition that these changes give to the Google advertising model could be worth billions of dollars in extra revenue. That would certainly make the hassle that the firm is going through now to bring in its changes worth it, and you’d suggest it’s likely to be the prime motivator. Furthermore, as Google brings in new products and services, it can just tag them onto the privacy policy as it does so, without having to go through the process of starting up from scratch each time.

Nevertheless, even though Google has shown an ability to skate through criticism, it’s still attracting its fair share over these latest changes.


When Google does anything of nay prominence, it always attracts criticism, by the very nature of being a firm of the size that it is. After all, cynicism and suspicion is hardwired into many, not least the technology press. However, in this particular case, that criticism seems more vociferous than usual. And for a few reasons.

The first is one of timing. What’s been interesting about the way that Google has gone about its proposed changes in the speed at which the firm has done it, publicly anyway. You can bet that there was no small measure of work going on behind the scenes to shape the amalgamated privacy policy into the one that went active on 1st March 2012. But in terms of how long Google gave its userbase time to get used to the idea? Eight weeks, give or take, from start to finish. That’s a very short period of time, given the matter in question.

It introduced the news that it was making major changes to its privacy policy back in January, urging users to read about it, but not crying too loudly when the majority elected not to. Even if they did read what it has provided, though, and digested everything, there was a sense of fait accompli about it. What, realistically, could a user do? Scrutinise the changes, and then go back and negotiate? Even if that was in any way feasible, which is evidently isn’t, the time-scales involved make it impossible.

Google, then, could simply present a take it or leave it deal. If you wanted a Google account to use its products and services, as many of us do, then the privacy changes would become active on 1st March, and there was nothing we could do about it. Granted, you could use the services without logging in if you wanted to in some cases (although anonymous browsing is still tracked), but you cut off a bunch of features if you do so. The proverbial carrot and stick, then.

Anything introduced at such relative speed fuels suspicion by very definition, but in the case of what Google did, that suspicion may have had a bit more real substance to it than originally thought. This is because the second major criticism that Google is facing is one of law. Is what it did actually legal? Depending on where you live in the world, you might just get a different answer.

Speaking to the BBC at the start of March, the European Union’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, argued that what Google had done was breaching EU law. Specifically, ‘transparency rules have not been applied’.

Reding told Radio Four that ‘nobody had been consulted, it is not in accordance with the law on transparency and it utilises the data of private persons in order to hand in over to third parties, which is not what the users have agree to’. Reding had outlined proposed legislation in late January, and Google would not have been able to do what it had done, had that been in effect. On this occasion, the timing was very much in Google’s favour.

Meanwhile, in France, its privacy agency, The National Commission For Computing And Civil Liberties (known as CNIL), sent a letter to Larry Page. Page is the co-founder of Google, and its current chief executive, and the letter, while welcoming Google’s efforts to inform users of the new policy, was generally scathing. ‘Google’s new policy does not meet the requirements of the European Directive on Data Protection,’ it said in bold text.

Further down the letter, also in bold text, ‘The CNIL and the EU data protection authorities are deeply concerned about the combination of personal data across services: they have strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing, and about its compliance with European Data Protection legislation.’

The letter was dated 27th February 2012, and ended with CNIL asking Google to ‘pause until we have completed our analysis’.

Google enacted the policy changes, as planned, three days later. Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleicher, responsed to CNIL, saying that Google is ‘confident that our simple, clear and transparent privacy policy respects all European data protection laws and principles.’
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