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Summary:

The Gmail-Google+ privacy row is interesting on its own terms, but it’s really just part of a bigger picture that should concern all of us, particularly regulators.

Picard_as_Locutus
photo: Paramount

Google has caused quite the stir with its announcement of new integration between Gmail and its Google+ social network. In case you missed it, Google+ users will be able to email you even if they don’t know your email address. This new “feature” is of course opt-out rather than opt-in.

Privacy advocates are outraged and rightly so — for a start, the move probably falls foul of the FTC’s post-Buzz-debacle consent decree. But I think this incident forms part of a trend in Google’s long-term evolution that could result in a much more explosive confrontation with competition regulators. And I have absolutely no idea how that confrontation would be resolved.

Perils of integration

As Stowe Boyd says over at Gigaom Research, the Gmail move looks like “another premeditated effort to force Google+ down our throats.” No change there, then – Google+ is largely a construct of the company’s highly contentious cross-service data-melding, rather than genuine user enthusiasm.

For Google, all this integration means better user profiling and more accurate ad targeting – never forget that Google is above all an advertising firm. For its users, however, the value is a lot harder to pin down. And in some cases, Google’s consolidation can be outright dangerous.

Earlier this week the Guardian reported the case of a transgender woman who accidentally outed herself to her employer because of Google’s integration of SMS into the Hangouts app in the latest version of its Android operating system. She meant to send a text message to a colleague under her old male name, and instead sent a chat message under her new female name, which she uses on her personal Google+ profile. It was an easy mistake to make – too easy – because who outside the tech world pays attention to Google’s many subtle moves?

Now, Gmail users who like to keep email and social networking separate may start getting nasty surprises too. Anyone who is a “connection” on Google+ will be able to send an email to them, even though they won’t know their email address. Yes, this can be turned off in the Gmail settings, but if Google thought a significant number of people would know to do that and follow through, it wouldn’t have made it opt-out rather than opt-in.

Not-so-humble bundle

This actually wouldn’t be that big a deal if it weren’t for one major thing, apart from the opt-out element: many (perhaps most) Google+ “users” are barely aware that they have an account, because at no point did they have to sign up. All they had to do was be a willing user of one of Google’s other myriad services. Now they’ve been sucked into what increasingly amounts to a huge bundle of services.

What’s more, that Borg-like bundle (I’m referring to Star Trek, not Google’s internal workload-scheduling tool) is co-opting services that weren’t Google’s to start with. SMS is the obvious example, though Facebook is trying to do the same thing with its Messenger service, which is why I uninstalled Facebook’s app from my phone.

And, although it’s genuinely convenient and we mostly stopped thinking about it a long time ago, the URL bar is another – these are mostly search entry fields as well these days and, Internet Explorer aside, all major browsers default to Google Search. And now there’s email, too.

Google’s assimilation and consolidation seems unstoppable, and that may become an antitrust problem, particularly in Europe.

The European situation

The issue in Europe is one of market dominance. Google’s share of the European search market is over 90 percent, compared with a U.S. share of around 67 percent. Android’s share of smartphone sales in the 5 biggest European economies is around 70 percent, compared with just 50 percent in the U.S. That Android share is growing fast, and then of course there’s the defaulting to Google search in iOS, which has an 18 percent share of smartphone sales in the EU5 (versus 43 percent in the U.S.)

All this is why Google already has big antitrust problems in Europe relating to search, a market which it utterly owns in that region. The company simply has too much power – Microsoft and its allies may not be natural sympathy magnets, but they certainly have a point when they complain about how Google can make rival services just disappear if it feels like it.

The thing is, Google can maybe still fix this specific problem by giving equal prominence to rival services in its results. It wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be pleasant for Google, but the European Commission’s repeated rejection of the company’s settlement efforts suggests Google may just have to bite the bullet.

But what if Google were to face antitrust action in the future that it’s constructing for itself?

Too unified?

The problem is, that’s an all-Google future. There is no air in it for rivals. Whereas today’s Google Search or Maps offers the user a list of the results, into which a rival’s services can be inserted, the company is plainly heading for a virtual assistant scenario where it gives one result.

It’s a long-term play for sure, but it’s what Google Now is for. It’s what Google Glass, with its leaning towards bite-sized chunks of information, is for. It’s a scenario where asking Google for something is like asking a friend or colleague while in a rush – you don’t want a list of options, you just want the answer. Who’s selling that product? This company. Any pizza places around here? This one. Maybe we’ll be asking these questions of a smartwatch or smart glass, maybe we’ll be asking our Googlebot Roboservants, but one way or another it’s where we’re probably heading.

As natural-language interaction would be key, it’s no stretch to see how this virtual assistant could serve as a conduit for brief messages, as a replacement for SMS, instant messaging and so on. Admittedly, it’s currently hard to see how it could subsume more long-form formats such as email, but I bet Google’s working on a way.

The single-answer, single-point-of-communication approach would be really convenient in some ways, but it would also be grossly anti-competitive. It would make Google an all-powerful gatekeeper, which would be dangerous – look at the punishment Google meted out to Rap Genius for its SEO-gaming ways, and imagine that power concentrated and enhanced.

This scenario would no doubt enrage regulators, probably not just in Europe, but it would also present them, and Google, with a dilemma: how do you reintroduce competition into a single-answer world? In that scenario, you can’t even take today’s nuclear option – breaking the company up – because it’s no longer a case of federated divisions; it’s a monolithic entity.

Just a thought

I don’t know how that confrontation would play out, but someone would have to win and, if Google were the victor, that would be bad for all of us. There is a point to antitrust regulation, after all – without competition, the consumer always loses out.

Of course, this may never come to pass. Despite the fact that no-one can currently outplay Google in sucking up the world’s data (OK, apart from the NSA) in order to feed a nascent artificial intelligence, there’s still a chance that IBM’s Watson will underpin some killer project that successfully takes on Google, or that Stephen Wolfram’s still fairly esoteric efforts will break into our everyday lives.

The market may shift; it may reject the single-answer future on its own — after all, Google has weak spots, such as reviews. Monopolies (which Google may or may not be, depending on when and where you’re talking about) rise and fall based on unknown unknowns: just look at Microsoft being whacked by the combination of “free” software-as-a-service and the shift to mobile.

But this certainly is Google’s Borg-like quest and there’s a reasonable chance that it will come to fruition, making it a good idea to start thinking of the consequences now. When we see the friction caused by little incidents like the Gmail-Google+ tie-in, it’s worth considering the bigger picture.

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  1. It’s just the same brouhaha every time Google introduces something, the same actors get up in arms and and the same blog post and observations are made. Same “privacy advocates” doing the same PR tour spewing the same spiel, only to find out that everyone was making a big deal out of nothing. Alarmism is the “privacy advocate”s bread and butter others get their PR from any anti-Google consortium and so on. Just buck he trend already and don’t cater to this sensationalism.

  2. If this is the case, why is GigaOm using Google Feedproxy in its RSS feed?

  3. FIrst of all, people make mistake SMSs all the time even BEFORE the hangout sms merge. She made the mistake cause SHE was not paying attention.
    Two, alot of companies do this kind of consolidation without even allowing an Opt out ability. So the fact google even does is a good thing.
    Three, I, like most people, DONT CARE if they are gathering info on us. Why? Because EVERY COMPANY DOES. Its not like they are unique for it. EVERY…SINGLE…COMPANY…DOES. The fact is, unlike those other companies, google offers almost all of their sevices for FREE. And unlike most free services, theirs are usually among the best of even the paid services…despite being free. So if they want to get my info in exhange for continuing to make great stuff for free…then so be it..especially since again..every other company does as well.

    And as for unifying stuff….i find it makes things easier. Once you learn the bells and whistles of the new combines system of two services, i find that it is more efficient then the two when they were seperate. At first you make make mistakes, but thats no different then making mistakes when you start a new service when its not integrated yet. Once the learning curve is over, its usually better.

    1. Oh..and BTW…to even post this, I used the facebook login option..and lo and behold, Gigaohm wants access to my facebook feed, friends list,posts,etc…etc…

      Not much different then google if u was me…cough..cough

  4. You have to worry when the Google’s aim is to take over the world.

  5. Winston Lawrence Friday, January 10, 2014

    Actually I personally am finding Gmail more and more confusing and frustrating to use. I mostly use an android email client but sometimes I need to go to the web client. My God – yesterday a brand new email that was less than 10 minutes old just disappeared from view,. I had to create a label and a filter to get to see that email.

    I have weird Google+ names taking up valuable screen real estate that I cant see any way to get rid of.

    Mail gets folded into some weird prioritization scheme that guarantees once its read you can only find it again via search (maybe). I’m actively looking to dump Gmail because Google seems to have gone overboard from what used to be a simple bare minimum design to a persistent hot-mess.

    I may not be Joe average consumer but I keep my calendar and contact information services running out of my own servers in my home now as I just don’t trust “don’t Be Evil” when the organization making the statement gets to define for itself What Is evil.

    1. You can figure out how to host your own servers but you can’t figure out how to find an email. Sure thing buddy how much did Microsoft pay you to post that one.

      Also even if Google was evil you are no where near important enough for them to give a s##t about your contacts and calendar. Get over your self and stop talking crap!

    2. It’s not just that they get to define evil. They change the definition as it suits them. My disillusion with Google became complete with the aggressive and underhanded way they tried to recruit me into G+.

      I’ve disabled G+ (twice, since it mysteriously reactivated), so this new “feature” doesn’t directly affect me. What troubles me is that Google feels that it is OK to make it opt-out. Opt-out is now Google’s standard practice. Should I wait for Google to do something else to gmail before in find a replacement service? What if Google fully integrates gmail into G+, making G+ mandatory? Remember what they did with Google Reader?

      Should I wait for the other shoe to drop, or should I begin looking for an alternative service? Changing ones email a address is a pain in the ass, but I might as well get it over with, since this “borgification” seems inevitable. Ironically, I’m considering a move to Outlook mail.

      I am not against advertising in exchange for services. It’s these constant incremental changes that provide Google with all of the benefit that bother me. It makes reliance on Google for anything a problem.

  6. Google is getting worse and worse with each passing day. If you’re still using google products, then I recommend you do some serious soul searching. People who use google are supporting a culture that says its okay to violate our privacy. Please don’t support them or Facebook, or any other company that makes money from collecting our personal information. Instead we should be using sites that don’t violate our privacy such as Ravetree, HushMail, DuckDuckGo, etc.

    1. Bam! Nail on head.

  7. Yes I should go and use an inferior product that does no integrate with anything because u think Google is so evil its going to steal my precious internet activity data and oh god now show me an add for some thing I might want to buy or even more dubious those scum bags are going to read my emails and remind me of my upcoming flight!!

    You know what I think I’ll just stay on the safe side and cancel my cable internet cut the cord and hide in my basement with a tinfoil hat! That sounds way better then using a free product i can choose to leave at any time I see fit.

    1. Free Free Free, what you don’t have a job? Oh, that’s right, you don’t have a job because no one is buying anything because no one has a job because no one is buying anything…. The advertising based economy can thrive on investment capital, for a while.

  8. Alas, poor Yorrick Google! I knew him, Facebook; a company of infinite refinement, of most excellent metadata inquiry; het hath borne me upon the back of free service 10^100 times, and now, how abhorred thine EU antitrust is with it! My gorge rises, for there hangs the search bar I typeth times I know not. Where be your autocorrect now? Your dancing doodle and cheerful chime? Your flashes of earned wealth, that were wont to set the table on a roar?

  9. Perfectly written. Google is going in the wrong direction. People supporting Google should remember if a product is free, then “they” are the product.
    Google is legalizing spam by adding a tabs to push spam email into the in box based on other normal emails! great going Google. I sent an email to a contractor to start a project from scratch. I am now getting emails for cooling gel that stops itching and scratching and hair dandruff products.

  10. This article is terrible.

    I am not a Google apologist but you don’t actually understand the full scope of how this works. This is part of a larger set of plans to integrate your digital life which is beneficial.

    What I mean by this is that earlier this year, when Google created categories for your email, it was to separate by relevance. This new system does not expose your email, nor can anyone from Google+ email your primary box. They can email your social box (which is irrelevant) unless they are either in your circles, or you reply. You also have the ability to turn the feature off entirely or limit it from the get go to people within your circles.

    This is actually a good thing.

    1. Graham, you may not be a Google apologist – but you sure sound like someone from Google. To say it is actually a good thing is absolutely ridiculous !

    2. But you are an apologist, Google is selling your info whenever and wherever they want wakeup, that is what Google is doing. Wakeup!

    3. But what if I don’t want my digital life to be integrated? Or what if I don’t want it to be integrated by Google?

      Ten years ago, I signed up for a standalone product called gmail. Eventually, they brought advertising to it, which was fair enough. I grew to rely on gmail, especially since the company promised not to do evil, i.e., not screw over the customer in an attempt to wring every penny from him or her.

      What happens when Google builds email functionality into G+ and automagically moves gmail users over to it, discontinuing gmail? Sort of like they did with Google Reader? Anybody remember how that went for Google Reader users and developers that relied on it?

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