19 Comments

Summary:

There has been a lot of outrage — bordering on hysteria — about Google’s new privacy policy, with some critics advising users to delete their search histories. But is there that much to fear from Google’s tracking? Not really. In fact, in many ways it is beneficial.

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There has been an ocean of outrage recently over Google’s new privacy policy, which went into effect on Thursday: The European Union is protesting the changes, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is recommending that users delete their search histories, and much of the coverage seems designed to fan the flames of panic. But should Google’s moves be cause for alarm? Hardly. For one thing, the new policy is not much of a change from the company’s previous policies (as some observers have pointed out). But more than that, tracking users is one of the fundamental building blocks of Web services, and it arguably makes the Web better, not worse.

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic recently provided a glimpse into just how much tracking occurs on the Web when a user is simply going about his usual day: A check of his activity with a new tool from the Mozilla Foundation called Collusion, Madrigal says, showed that more than 100 services were tracking him in some form or another via cookies installed in his browser. Most of these, as he describes in the post in some depth — tools such as AdBrite and Aggregate Knowledge — are designed to pick up signals from users that will make it easier to target advertising in a variety of ways. Madrigal adds:

There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content. All the data lets advertisers tune their ads, and the rest of the information logging lets them measure how well things are actually working.

News flash: I actually want to be targeted for advertising

In a nutshell, this is the point we need to keep in mind when thinking about Google’s tracking of users, Facebook’s data-collection policies or even Twitter’s moves to sell historical data to analytics providers: namely, that those kinds of activities are what fund the services we use. Google and Facebook both run dozens of multibillion-dollar server farms that hold all of that free email and photo hosting users are so enamored of (Facebook alone holds more than 140 billion photos). That is one reason why Google’s only opt-out feature is to simply not use the company’s services at all. The tracking and analytics and the services themselves are so intertwined it is probably impossible to disentangle them.

I will go a step further: I’m not just ambivalent about this kind of tracking — I actually want to be tracked by companies like Google and even Facebook. Not just because it helps pay for the services I use but also because it should (theoretically at least) make my Web experience better, by targeting ads and other things toward me instead of bombarding me with useless advertising that turns most websites into a garish nightmare, the visual equivalent of email spam. If tracking my activity (which is anonymized by the majority of companies who use it) helps reduce that problem, then I am all for it.

I wrote not long ago about a privacy complaint from a number of groups who complained that Google and WebMD and other services showed users ads based on the fact that they were searching for medical terms, and my point is the same now as it was then: I want Google to track my search so it can show me relevant ads and other content. If I have cancer or know someone with cancer, showing me information about cancer has a high likelihood of being beneficial. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see it as intrusive; I see it as a service, if it is done well (and that is the holy grail for advertising).

Don’t worry about Google; worry about Homeland Security

Obviously this doesn’t mean we should just allow companies to do whatever they wish when it comes to tracking our Web behavior. Encouraging them — and if necessary, forcing them — to be transparent about what is happening and what the data is being collected for is a worthwhile goal, and that’s what much of the Obama administration’s new privacy “bill of rights” is designed to do. And yes, Facebook should probably quit screwing around with its settings all the time and changing things to be opt-out instead of opt-in, but I have no issue with them tracking me via the Like button.

There are plenty of quasi-shady companies that track your behavior online and merge your identity from one network into another, as Rapleaf has been accused of doing in the past, and that is worth criticizing. It’s probably worth being skeptical about how (and why) the Department of Homeland Security and others are tracking your behavior as well. But lots of offline companies and agencies collect all kinds of data on your payment history, credit score, insurance claims and other crucial information, and no one seems to be interested in how little we know about that process.

In other words, there are things worth being concerned about when it comes to your personal information being used in ways you don’t want it to be, and maybe you aren’t willing to make the trade-off involved in exchanging your data for better services or better ads. Regardless, Google’s new privacy policy should be the least of your worries.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Josh Hallett and Stefan

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  1. gregorylent Friday, March 2, 2012

    rule by algorithm leads to lowest-common-denominator thinking and confirmation bias, produces a lack of trust in the (immense) powers of one’s own intuition and consciousness …. AND wastes ones time AND attention with cleverly hooked ads for stuff you STILL don’t need.

    it is a very old-paradigm manipulation concept, rendered new with advanced tech .. and totally abusive, still.

    advertising is a disease based on insecurity and ego.

  2. Google has me (correctly) pegged as a 50-64 yr/old male, and apparently the most profitable ads to show me are for erectile dysfunction and swollen prostate drugs. Five to ten per day, every day. This shouldn’t have to be the wallpaper of my online life, I’m a diverse person with many interests, but those interests have smaller payoffs for Google, apparently. The only word
    I know for it is “degrading”.

    1. Thanks — I experience similar things. I am not saying it couldn’t be better, because clearly it could :-)

      1. My biggest pet peeve, aside from the annoyance, is the ads for Spam, the meat-like product, that appear when you check your Gmail Spam folder. That should be a no-brainer.

  3. Mark McAndrew Friday, March 2, 2012

    Excellent post. It’s true that Google isn’t the issue per se, and yes, I’d prefer ads that I might actually want to see.

    But Google’s a US company and subject to the Patriot Act. I’m not a US citizen, so have no legal protection or redress if spied upon. If Google is asked for my web history, they cannot refuse.

  4. What you are talking about is the devaluation of your personal data. When everyone knows about you, you will only get what is most likely going to sell to you. Your traits and weaknesses are known, you will be excluded from other stuff.

    The system needs a turnaround. I can own my preferences, I own my history. Selectively I may expose it to get inspiration and offers from advertising. Other times I let serendipity kick in. What a waste of energy, effort and brain power to have X companies collect the same information about you and then guess what to show you.

    The consumer needs the personal data as bargaining power, the new EU regulation is going in the direction. Differentiation of service providers must come through their service, not through monopolistic situations with personal data as a hostage.

  5. Yahya Haque Friday, March 2, 2012

    This is an interesting take on the subject Mathew. I just don’t like being constantly tracked call me old fashioned. Google has me pegged between 25-34. In reality I am 22 but whats two years? Also I worry just as much about Homeland Security tracking me as a private corporation. Private corporations these days get away with a ton of stuff. I wrote a blog post on the whole privacy topic and how it relates to families check it out and let me know what you think. http://blog.famigo.com/2012/02/what-googles-new-privacy-policy-really-means/

  6. Armin Wolff Friday, March 2, 2012

    Why do companies have to have personally identifying information, such as name, address and telephone number? I like the idea of getting advertising specific to me, but I don’t like the idea of them knowing specifically who I am. There should be no tie between a specific Internet user and their personal identity. There should be no way for anyone, including the government to figure out who the person was that went to a specific website.

  7. 239djd902jds9012213j Friday, March 2, 2012

    It’s quite creepy that everyone here is saying “I like being tracked”. I don’t like being tracked.

    I could care less about some stupid advertising company’s bottom line. No matter what ad is blinking obnoxiously in front of me I refuse to click on it, And I make a mental note to not buy anything from that company.

    1. Amen to everything except the bit about making a mental note, that is—boycotting companies for advertising their products doesn’t make any sense to me.

      1. 239djd902jds9012213j Aankhen Monday, March 5, 2012

        It used to be that pop-ups were the worst, but now they have frames that pop up within your active window. Likewise, little punch the monkey .gifs used to be annoying but now they have huge flash ads with sound that can grind older machines and mobiles to a halt.

        Those are the boycott-able companies. Ad-sense ads aren’t that way, but not everyone is using just Ad-sense. You boycott them for partnering with and approving campaigns that go way beyond “we’d like you to hear about our product” and into “hey, I know you came to this website to do X, but I’m going to cover the content you came to see and refuse to go away until you give me an email address or a click-through”.

      2. Oh, okay. I didn’t realize you meant only the really obnoxious ads.

    2. are you on facebook? if you are your already being tracked

      1. 239djd902jds9012213j mike Monday, March 5, 2012

        You’re asking the guy with a fake twitter account if he has a Facebook account? Yes, I have like 20 of them. And none of them are me ;)

  8. You are so right!

  9. Don’t want to give away your non-personally identifiable information (PII) in exchange for free, amazing online tools (Google Search, YouTube, Gmail, Facebook, Google+, etc)? OK, then prepare to pay a monthly fee to these companies to use their products. Can’t have it both ways. And, if you don’t have anything to add to the conversation besides, “I don’t want to be tracked,” and offer no alternative solutions, you’re a waste.

  10. I don’t want to be contstantly reminded about things I’ve looked at in the past over and over and over

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