In Defense of Google, Or Why Consumer Watchdog is Full of It
The self-appointed Consumer Watchdog activist group is running a Times Square jumbotron advertisement lambasting Google as a massive invader of your privacy, caricaturing its CEO Eric Schmidt as a creepy, high-tech ice cream vendor who profiles children.
The video (above) is just the latest from Consumer Watchdog, a foundation-funded group that partial to splashy campaigns. The group has hired former reporter John Simpson to be a “hell raiser” focused on Google, and he’s been remarkably good at it, even when the facts aren’t on his side.
While there’s plenty of reasons to keep a critical eye focused on the search and advertising giant, Consumer Watchdog’s ad is a dishonest, factually inaccurate joke that shamefully got plenty of uncritical media attention, including from my colleague David Kravets at Wired.com.
In the simplest terms possible, Consumer Watchdog is just wrong.
In the ad, Eric Schmidt is seen telling a kid that he knows that his daddy watches “sports” at work (meaning porn), and takes weird high-tech snapshots of the kids as their “payment” for free ice cream, using “Google Analytics,” a traffic measurement tool used by millions of web sites, including Wired.com and as Business Insider points out, by Consumer Watchdog as well.
But here’s a question for you Google and Gmail users. Have you ever actually seen ads on third-party websites or Google’s own sites that are derived from assumptions Google has made about you based on your search history or what you have written about in e-mails?
No, you haven’t. Google doesn’t do that. Every search ad and every ad in Gmail or Google Images is essentially blind to who you are and is keyed off only the search term you just entered or the e-mail you just opened.
That’s because Google’s ad tracking system and your Google account system are separated by design.
How about so-called re-targeting ads, where companies like Zappos trail you around the net with ads for products you looked at on their site but never bought? Does Google do that with searches you’ve made on products? No, it doesn’t, even though that would be easy and highly profitable for them.
In terms of building profiles of users, Google is remarkably and admirably restrained in how it uses the insane amount of data it collects.
The company has a unified privacy dashboard that lets you easily set your privacy preferences on a wide range of its services.
It does have a third-party ad service — AdSense (augmented by the Google buying DoubleClick) — that tracks what you do on the websites that use its ad delivery technology. But those sites (with the exception of YouTube) aren’t Google owned, and that tracking isn’t anything different from what a dozen other firms, including Yahoo and Microsoft do.
And more to the point, that tracking isn’t connected with what you search for, what you do in Google Docs, what you do on your mobile Android phone or in your Gmail account.
Google was the first major advertiser to show you what their third party ad services have “deduced” about you. They allow you to edit those categories and opt-out entirely (you have to do this with each browser you use, specifically because this data isn’t tied to your account.)
Google is also the first and only major tech company to reveal the numbers and kinds of requests and orders for user data from governments around the world. No other company or ISP has had the guts to follow that lead, for fear of alienating governments and freaking out their users.
Call me a Google fanboy. But I’ve done my fair share of banging on the company to be better at privacy and transparency, and also recently called the company a “carrier-humping net neutrality surrender monkey” for compromising its previously unqualified defense of open internet rules for the mobile and fixed broadband.
And yes, I still have problems with some of Google privacy choices and decisions.
They hold onto search and other profile data for too long, and their “anonymization” of the data after 18 months could be easily reversed. They still turn on the creepy “Web History” by default for all account holders, which is an egregious privacy choice (however, this ‘feature’ only records your searches and the places you visit from a search result page, unless you use the Google Toolbar in your browser, which records everything when ‘Web History’ is enabled.).
The WiFi sniffing snafu was an embarrassment, even if experts agree there wasn’t anything useful to be snared in a quick-drive-by-packet-sniff. I agree with the EFF’s analysis by the wickedly smart attorney Jennifer Granick, which boiled down to “This was too stupid a move to be repeated by Google”.
Allowing its venture capital arm to pair investments with the CIA’s VC group was bone headed, while turning to the NSA for help when it got hacked is a PR nightmare. Likewise, its drive to land big, secretive search contracts with the feds is also short-sighted — the revenue will be tiny compared to AdWords.
Meanwhile, it leaves a perception that Google is in bed with three-letter agencies is damaging, especially given the feds abuse of cozy relationships with nation’s telecoms, the Bush administration’s violations of wiretapping law, and the Obama administrations refusal to make good on its promise of revisiting a 2008 compromise that lets the government turn ISPs and online companies into a spying arm of the NSA, with almost no court oversight.
That said …
When the feds came asking for search engine logs to defend its net censorship law in 2006, Google stood up to the feds and told them “No Way” and won.
Google was the first (and remains the only) major web mail company to turn on SSL by default (and < expensive or hard that isn?t SSL known it make>) for its webmail users. While that might not matter to you, for people in countries where governments routinely sniff emails, that default is huge.
They were the first major search engine to make an https search site. Google’s Buzz is the only social networking site protected by SSL, which means unlike when you are using Twitter or Facebook, government censors and wifi sniffers can’t see what you are doing in there.
So who should Consumer Watch be going after?
Try the creepy data-mining company Spokeo that the Center for Democracy and Technology lodged an FTC complaint about. Or they could shine a spotlight on the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which act as shills for the third-party advertising companies that track you around the net. The IAB doesn’t have the ethics to tell their members that it’s wrong to use web tracking to identify people who are diabetic, or fat, or have cancer or are poor or can’t get it up.
Then there are the companies currently being sued for using little-known capabilities in Flash to re-create cookies you deleted from your computer.
Certainly, keeping a keen eye on Google is a good thing. The pressure inside Google to widen its profiling is huge, especially when you look at what Facebook can do with its advertising.
It lets advertisers target you on any Facebook page, based on the info in your profile — your location, age, marital status and the things you like.
That puts Google’s under a lot of pressure to break down the walls to let its advertising unit at the data about what you’ve searched for in the past year and a half or what the contents of your Gmail account say about you, or what your Google docs say. Read the WSJ story for some of the ideas that have been floated internally.
Google did breach that wall last year when it allowed YouTube usage data to be part of Google’s behavioral profiling. But despite that, that break hasn’t widened in over a year.
Maybe the data hasn’t turned out to be that useful, or maybe Google has found that untargeted advertising actually trumps making guesses about people with AdWords, which are largely dumb to who you are.
And finally, in defense of Eric Schmidt’s comments, his statements aren’t that far off. If you don’t want people to know what you are searching for, take some basic steps to shield them. Try DuckDuckGo for instance. Get Abine. Use the incognito function of your browser. Install Tor. Buy a VPN. Turn Web History off and don’t use that damn Google toolbar.
As for his statement that in the future Google might suggest what you want rather than you searching on it, what’s really wrong with that speculation? Or his comment, that in the future, children might get the right to change their name to hide their childhood and teen online missteps?
He’s the CEO of the net’s most powerful online company, and he’s just playing at William Gibson and Vernor Vinge’s game of speculation.
But as for the world’s privacy villain, right now, Google isn’t it, Schmidt isn’t it, and neither are evil.
And the remedy Consumer Watchdog is pushing is just plain stupid. A Do Not Track List sounds good in theory, but your presence on the net is far different from the phone numbers that make the Do Not Call list a success.
The reason you have to opt out of Google ads or any ad network in each browser you use is BECAUSE you don’t have a single identifiable identity. You’d have to get a single online identity, and log in with it every time, in order for a Do Not Track list to work. I care about privacy, sometimes too much, and I think that’s the dumbest thing anyone could possibly suggest would help.
So in short, not only Consumer Watchdog’s video deceptive, its proposed solution is worse than the current problem.
Keeping pressure on Google to maintain its wall is a good thing, but to accuse them of things that they refrained from for purely ethical reasons is just low and unfair.
But what does the Consumer Watchdog care — they got a lot of press from their misleading video, even though the world is stupider for it.
Way to go, “Consumer Watchdog,” you are really looking out for us.
- ‘Evil’ Eric Schmidt Debuts in Video Targeting Google Privacy
- Google Privacy Practices Worse Than ISP Snooping, AT&T Charges
- Lawsuits Pour in Over Google’s Wi-Fi Data Collection
- Google Will Ask Buzz’s Early Adopters to Confirm Privacy Choices …
- What Search Sites Know About You
- Word War III: Google vs. Governments
- Google: U.S. Demanded User Info 3500 Times in 6 Months