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Google, a super parent?

Last Updated: Sunday, February 5, 2012 - 16:29

Shobhika Puri

Google has become as integral a part of everybody’s life like air and water are. Many people cannot live without the Internet and Internet does not make much sense for many without Google. Thus, it is no surprise that anything or everything that Google does, makes news.

Google recently announced its new privacy policy. Is it not a good thing that a company is giving a prior notice to its users about its changed privacy policy? Why are many people getting apprehensive about this soon to be implemented policy? Here’s a look at what the hype is all about.

First, the positives. Two distinguishing trademarks of most legal documents are their length and complexity of language that is full of jargons, which most people do not understand or do not have the time to read. So, here is one company that made an effort to make its existing privacy policy concise and simple to understand. Is it not something that it should be appreciated for? Is it not something that other companies should aspire to do unless of course their intent is that their customers do not actually read their policies before signing on the dotted line?

Google has not only given a prior notice to its users about the changes in its privacy policy but has also made sure that the notice is prominent. Most companies like banks send reminders about payment dues ad nauseum but when it comes to something that actually matters to the customers like changes in interest rates, one obscure message somewhere in the middle of loads of unnecessary text, is generally all that the banks can find the time for. In contrast, Google has given enough screen space for this notice and keeps sending reminders through other mediums like emails. Is this not a hallmark of a good company?

So far, so good. However, as they say, the devil lies in the details and such is the case with Google’s privacy policy. One quick read of the policy can scare even a strong-hearted person. And, the chicken-hearted are forewarned!

Google claims, actually authorizes itself to collect all information about its users’ online activities even if they are remotely related to Google. Google’s latest privacy policy authorizes itself to collect information about a user’s IP address; hardware settings, operating system, browser settings; location through GPS, WiFi access point and cell tower; search queries; phone number, call log that includes calling party, forwarding party, call duration, date and time; cookies that uniquely identify a user’s Google account or browser; the domain administrator can access all the information in a user’s Google account; any information shared publicly is indexable by its search engine; even if a user gets some objectionable information deleted from any of its services, it may not necessarily mean that the same has been deleted from the active servers or backup tapes; Google can also share the user’s personal information with its affiliates for processing the same (called outsourcing, which is a legally permissible activity); Google can also share aggregated non-personally identifiable information with other companies; and the list goes on. In short, Google knows much more than even a parent can possibly know about a child!

Given the ubiquitous nature of Google in the online world, this virtually means that everything that one does online is actually tracked, stored, used and maybe abused by Google. The best (or the worst) part is that Google does all this with that very user’s permission whose information it collects! After all, how many people actually read the privacy policy at the time of registering with Google? And even if one does, what are one’s options? Can one really escape the charms or the ever-increasing benefits of the multitude of offerings by Google and its partners?

It would only be fair to share what Google has to say on the issue. It says that by getting access to personal information and preferences of a user, it can provide better search results. Whatever happened to better keywords for achieving the same objective? Next, comes an oft repeated rationale of remembering a user’s language preferences. Such a mundane task does not require access to all the information about a user. Google can ask its users if they want Google to remember their language preferences like the way it is done for remembering passwords. The same argument is also given for providing customized ads to users based on their online usage patterns. This again can be done by giving the users an option to set their ad preferences at the time of registering. The most bizarre argument by Google is that the information collected by it, would enable it to help users find more about people who matter to them the most online. Well, would it not be better if the users decide for themselves who matters to them the most instead of a pre-determined algorithm? After all, human emotions and relationships are too complex and ever-changing.

All the above-mentioned concerns should not and cannot take away the sheen from the multitude of benefits that Google brings to its users. It is a commercial organisation, no matter what its representatives say. It is and ought to be governed by commercial concerns. It has to make money to stay afloat and to be able to provide its users with even better services. It does have strict guidelines and policies for sharing users’ personal information with its employees. It does not associate any cookie or anonymous identifier with sensitive categories like race, religion, sexual orientation or health. It does give its users the option to monitor what information can be used by Google and how through tools like Google Dashboard. It provides an option for an opt-in consent for sharing any ‘sensitive’ personal information with other companies.

So, what is the conclusion? Google is not bad. Users are not bad. Google’s privacy policy is threatening. Users are vulnerable. Google’s functioning is transparent. Users are still not aware of what’s happening with their data inspite of all the information being available. Google wants its users to read its policies. Users do not have the time or inclination to read. Google wants its users to exercise their discretion before using its services. Users do not have many alternatives. Google continues to function as it did in the past. Users too shall continue to function as they did in the past.

So, is there nothing that a user can do? The whole purpose of this debate is not to scare away users but to forewarn them, to tell them to use the Internet smartly. Here are some strategies. Do not search using Google while being logged in to any of Google’s accounts. Create a Google account with an anonymous name for activities that you would not like to be associated with your name. Create multiple accounts with different names for different activities. For the ones with deep pockets, use multiple devices for different activities so that it becomes all the more difficult for Google to aggregate all the information about one person. As tedious as these activities may seem, they are equally not fool-proof. So, what’s the next best option? Google it to find out!

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer.)

First Published: Thursday, February 9, 2012 - 10:59

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