There are a number of websites in the world that have reached the kind of penetration, recognition and status that they have effectively become verbs – so much a part of our everyday life and language that we refer to their use as naturally as any other service.  Didn’t you just you Dropbox that file, Skype your parents or eBay all your stuff before you left theUK?

Few have achieved the true ubiquity of the world’s biggest search engine however: just ask yourself, how many things have you Googled this week?

For Google indeed started off for most of us as a search engine, one of many different ways we might have sought information online a decade or so back.  Nowadays, they are regarded as the only one that matters when publishing a website and wanting to be found on the internet, and they own a wide range of other online services as well.  When you watch a video on Youtube, or send a message via Gmail, you are dealing with the Google corporation.

But it’s important to remember, Google is providing these services to you for free, and you are NOT their customer.  Google’s business model is not about providing internet search, it’s about providing advertising opportunities – opportunities which are sought-after and paid-for because they offer people who are most likely to be receptive at that moment to the advertisers message: people who are searching for that very information.

When you look at a page of Google search results, the main body of the page contains the ‘organic’ search results, based on their top-secret algorithm of keywords, links and other factors… the other areas of the page – the shaded top region, and the right column – are filled with paid adverts.  Those advertisers are Google’s actual clients, and they pay Google when you click on that ad (Google ads are served on third party websites as well as Google’s own site, and work in a similar way).  Therefore the more Google knows about YOU – what your habits are online, what you’re into, where you are, what you like and so on – the better they can target your ads to get your attention and your click.

Recently, Google made it easier for themselves to do this, by combining their privacy agreements, across the range of services they offer, including both Google maps and their recently-launched social network Google+.  This enabled them to pool their bits of information about you and everyone else, so as to come up with a more detailed and valuable (to them) portrait of you as a user – better marketing information.  This has not been welcomed by a lot of privacy watchdogs and monitoring groups, and the reasons for this are valid – because of the way we use their services, the Google corporation ends up with a LOT of information.  They are bound by the privacy agreements  not to share that information or use it to identify you, but they do of course share it in aggregate to their marketers, so they can sell more powerfully effective products to their advertisers.

Google themselves have made very transparent attempts to communicate with us about this change, indeed you have probably been bugged about it whenever you’ve attempted to log in to or use any Google site or service in the past few weeks.  So far as they are concerned, they have simplified and unified the agreements already in place (rolling more than 60 of them into one), and have not caused you any detriment or greater exposure.  Indeed there does seem to be a welcome move towards clear English in the new policy, and they have been at pains to point out how it can benefit you – for example, if you have been searching online recently for recipes for cooking Mediterranean fish, then the next time you log into Youtube you might get served a plateful of adverts for videos about fish cooking.

So, what is the harm, and why is the French data protection organisation CNIL so concerned about this that they are testing the new policy to see whether it might even be in violation of EU law..?

Google has rolled out the policy already, knocking back two requests for delays and investigation by EU regulators.  But many consumer groups worldwide are also concerned.  Perhaps the problem is that the legal framework simply hasn’t kept pace with the speed of technological change – the fact that a single corporation can now do this and have this degree of control is unprecedented, and it’s only right that these powers should be tested legally.  If these powers were in the hands of elected law-makers they would be massively scrutinised and held to account, but they have ended up in the hands of a private commercial corporation instead, and as such we should all be glad someone is taking a long hard look at this on our behalf.

In the meantime – as Google themselves point out – whilst you cannot re-establish the silos between the different kinds of information they hold about you, you can limit each of those bits of information individually in different ways.  For example, sign into your Google account then go to google.com/history, and click the ‘remove all history’ button, which will stop Google referencing your search results for the past eighteen months.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation https://www.eff.org/ has more information about locking down your info on various Google-based and other services you might use, as well as online data privacy issues generally.  You could well end up cowering under your desk, or hurling your laptop into the sea after browsing this site… but remember, the information exists and is out there already.  Staying informed and in control of it is only commonsense, we all need to be vigilant and aware because information can be misused… the genie can never go back in the bottle now, but we can keep on top of what it’s allowed to do next.

 

Published in Costa Blanca News, 23rd March 2012

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