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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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Privacy, Profit & The Emergence Of Google's "Evil Twin"

There’s a funny and satirical 1989 British film called “How to Get Ahead in Advertising.” The movie focuses on an ad executive, played by actor Richard E. Grant, who experiences an ethical and mid-life crisis. He develops a boil on his neck, which grows into a literal head (a kind of evil twin) and eventually takes over. That struck me as a kind of metaphor for Google today.

Indeed, it would would appear there are now “two Googles.” One is a socially conscious company that develops great products and stakes out bold, consumer-centric public positions. The other, Google’s boil or “evil twin,” is overly self-interested, not always candid and even hypocritical at times. I celebrate the former but am concerned about the seemingly growing influence of the latter.

On the “good” side there is a long list positive accomplishments, symbolized by Google.org. And then there are Google’s great consumer products. We might disagree about which ones qualify, but there are a bunch of them.

To take just one example, Google Navigation and its integration with Maps on Android handsets is a terrific, highly disruptive service that forced Nokia to make its Ovi Maps free and has dramatically impacted an otherwise sleepy mobile and personal navigation segment. Traditional navigation providers such as Telenav and others are being forced to innovate and respond with new products and services. This kind of thing is great for consumers.

Google’s decision not to play along with Chinese government censorship or its 2007 efforts to “open up” the US wireless market and promote greater consumer choice and competition by bidding in the 700 megahertz spectrum auction are two examples of bold and arguably risky public positions that Google has taken.

Several years ago Google was the only major search engine that fought Bush administration Justice Department subpoenas to turn over user search data when AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo complied without protest. And the company’s new anti-censorship “transparency report,” which plays off the earlier Government (censorship) requests map, is another example of Google living up to ambitious stated values:

Free expression is one of our core values. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. Free expression is, of course, also at the heart of Google’s business. Our products are specifically designed to help people create, communicate, share opinions and find information across the globe. We hope this step toward greater transparency—and these tools—will help in ongoing discussions about the free flow of information.

On privacy, in most respects, Google has received a “bad rap.” European governments have aggressively criticized Google for its data retention policies and pressured the company for greater consumer privacy protections vis-a-vis Street View. The Germans, for example, are seeking new privacy concessions from Google and have given it until December 7 to go further than it already has. Generally Google has been quite responsive to these concerns — though not as much on search data retention — and has acted in good faith throughout.

In many respects Google has been a leader in privacy. In the US with the launch of behavioral targeting (interest-based ads) Google was the first to offer a dashboard to tune the system to your interests or opt-out entirely. That move was subsequently emulated by Yahoo online, and to some degree JumpTap in mobile. It’s also being conceptually adopted by the IAB to ward off federal regulation of behavioral targeting online.

Google recently updated its privacy policies to make them “more transparent and understandable” and offers a holistic personal dashboard that is otherwise unmatched by its immediate competitors.

According to Google, in the 10 months since its launch, the personal dashboard has been a success and seen increasing consumer usage:

We’re now averaging 104K unique users a day (~80% are new each day) . . . of those, about 4 in 5 will spend significant time on the site, presumably learning what information they are storing with Google. One in five typically click through on one of the links, to presumably change their personal settings. These numbers are similar to what we’ve seen with some of our other privacy tools – where most users want to see and understand what information they have an what they can do about, and a smaller yet significant number want to actually make changes.

Google intends to feature the dashboard more prominently in its privacy center and planning to make the pages more user-friendly.

These are sincere, meaningful efforts to better serve users and operate in a more “transparent” way. Yet the evil twin is also making gains it would appear.

A lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal describes Google’s recent efforts to determine how aggressively to mine its user data for ad-targeting purposes:

The [Google internal] vision statement describes the company’s immense search database as “the BEST source of user interests found on the Internet,” during a discussion of ways to make ads more relevant to users. “No other player could compete,” it says. Later, the document warns that some ideas range from “safe” to “not” safe.

The most aggressive ideas would put Google at the cutting edge of the business of tracking people online to profit from their actions. A data-trading marketplace, for instance, would allow personal information from many sources—including Google—to be combined and used for highly personalized tracking of individuals . . .

Google trails in some of these techniques by choice. Famous for its unofficial corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” for years it resisted using any method to track people online without their knowledge at the fierce insistence of founders Sergey Brin and Mr. Page. But the two men have gradually decided they can begin exploiting the data their company controls, without exploiting consumers, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees.

No final decisions have been made, according to the piece, but Google appears to be moving in the direction of greater data mining for ad targeting.

Another item in the “evil twin” category is Google’s recent “net-neutrality” deal with Verizon. A partial response to FCC foot dragging, the move is highly self interested, though justified in the broader interest, and a fundamental betrayal of Google’s previous positions on net neutrality. There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy there.

Perhaps even more egregious, though not as public, are the facts alleged in the Skyhook Wireless suit against the company. According to the complaint:

Skyhook and Google are competitors in the location positioning space. There was a time when Google tried to compete fairly with Skyhook. But once Google realized its positioning technology was not competitive, it chose other means to undermine Skyhook and damage and attempt to destroy its position in the marketplace for location positioning technology. In complete disregard of its common-law and statutory obligations, and in direct opposition to its public messaging encouraging open innovation, Google wielded its control over the Android operating system, as well as other Google mobile applications such as Google Maps, to force device manufacturers to use its technology rather than that of Skyhook, to terminate contractual obligations with Skyhook, and to otherwise force device manufacturers to sacrifice superior end user experience with Skyhook by threatening directly or indirectly to deny timely and equal access to evolving versions of the Android operating system and other Google mobile applications.

Emphasis added.

I spoke at some length with Skyhook CEO Ted Morgan yesterday. And while he’s obviously an interested party, some of the “background” information I received was surprising — even shocking in a way. Google has yet to explain its side of the story and I’m cautious about assuming anything in a plaintiff’s complaint is “true” as written (until proven). However there does seem to be some merit (from what I heard and can observe) to what Skyhook is saying.

As Google “matures” and is forced to find new sources of revenue growth and fight off competitors it’s starting to make some questionable moves. The evil twin seems to be gaining influence. Let’s hope that, unlike in the film, it doesn’t grow too powerful and eventually take over.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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