Google, Privacy, and the Rest of Us

So why am I a bit creeped out?


By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The New York Times's David Carr had an interesting column yesterday on Google's appeal: how one is willing to fritter away bits of privacy in exchange for Google's services. (Put another way: No, GMail is not "free"; neither are the Google Maps, Google Calendar, or the host of other popular services—but instead of a cash transaction, you're bartering away bits of information about yourself.)

Why don't we view Google as a malevolent corporate overlord in the manner of, say, Microsoft? Part of it lies in the answer one Google executive gave to Carr: You can pick and choose which bits of Google-ware you want to use; Microsoft got in trouble when it tried to bind you to all its products by making them one seamless group. Google can be seamless or modular. And Google grins goofily while doing it. But more on this answer in a second.

Before I go any further, I want to be clear: I'm a fan of Google. It is successful because its products work well. I asked Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, to write for us on a regular basis (too busy, alas). And God bless it, Google is the source of most of the traffic on the Thomas Jefferson Street blog (you, dear reader, probably got here by Google search, didn't you?). I use GMail and Google Maps. But . . .

I still found the answers Carr got about privacy concerns and dealing with one megacorporation unsatisfying.

To wit:

As always with Google, the price point is appealing: zero, if you don't count the amount of personal data that I am trading for all that utility. With Google, it is always simple, and any engineer will tell you that simple is hard.
If Google owns me, it's probably because I am in favor of what works.

"I'm glad to hear it," said Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, who was in New York last week. "We want a little bit of Google in many parts of your life." 

Now, that's creepy. That's the kind of stuff that comes out of the mouths of friendly seeming titans of industry in James Bond films (pre-Daniel Craig) just before they launch their world domination bid.

But my bigger question relates to these parts: 

. . . but I asked Mr. Schmidt if I shouldn't be worried that I am putting all of my digital eggs in one multicolored, goofy-lettered basket.

"That depends on what you think of our company and our values," he said. "Do you believe we have good values?"

Good values? I get suspicious when I hear the heads of major companies talking about their values, for a couple of reasons: First, corporations exist to make money; their "values" naturally involve their bottom line. "Values" just muddle matters. When CEOs talk about corporate values, it's often because someone in the PR department thinks it's a good idea. I'm actually willing to give Schmidt the benefit of the doubt here. But basic nature tends to reassert itself in animals and organizations, and Google is a for-profit company, and Eric Schmidt will not always be in charge (barring, of course, Google Immortality).

Mr. Schmidt seems nice enough, but I sometimes wonder if I will come to regret the easier, softer road I have chosen. A record of my surfing lives on its servers for 18 months—not by name, but still. Google continues to insist that my IP address is not me, but a motivated government with a subpoena in hand could find me, lots of me, on Google's servers.

Most data privacy experts would call me a fool to index my life into any one company so deeply, and diversification in all matters is just common sense.

A fair concern on the part of the data privacy experts.

Mr. Huber countered that I am free to come and go as I wish.

"The nice thing is that we don't force you to use only our stuff," he said. "It is not tied tightly together, and the content is all easily exportable. If you feel like we are letting you down, or you don't like our products or we are failing to innovate, you can pick up and go where you want."

A fair point, as discussed above. But "You can always walk away" is not exactly a head-on response to the question, which was about the dangers of letting a single company collect significant amounts of data about you.

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