Goo goo google’s tiny steps towards privacy…

Things seem to be hotting up in the battle for privacy on the internet. Over the last few days, Google have made three separate moves which look, on the surface at least, as though they’re heading, finally, in the right direction as far as privacy is concerned. Each of the moves could have some significance, and each has some notable drawbacks – but to me at least, it’s what lies behind them that really matters.
The first of the three moves was the announcement on October 19th, that for signed in users, Google was now adding end-to-end (SSL) encryption for search. I’ll leave the technical analysis of this to those much more technologically capable than me, but the essence of the move is that it adds a little security for users, making it harder to eavesdrop on a user’s seating activities – and meaning that when someone arrives at a website after following a google search, the webmaster of the site arrived at will know that the person arrived via google, but not the search term used to find them. There are limitations, of course, and Google themselves still gather and store the information for their own purposes, but it is still a step forward, albeit small. It does, however, only apply to ‘signed in’ users – which cynics might say is even more of a drawback, because by signing in a user is effectively consenting to the holding, use and aggregation of their data by Google. The Article 29 Working Party, the EU body responsible for overseeing the data protection regime, differentiates very clearly between signed-in and ‘anonymous’ (!) users of the service in terms of complying with consent requirements – Google would doubtless very much like more and more users to be signed in when they use the service, if only to head off any future legal conflicts. Nonetheless, the implementation of SSL should be seen as a positive step – the more that SSL is implemented in all aspects of the internet, the better. It’s a step forward – but a small one.

There have also been suggestions (e.g. in this article in the Telegraph) that the move is motivated only by profit, and in particular to make Google’s AdWords more effective at the expense of techniques used by Search Engine Optimisers, who with the new system will be less able to analyse and hence optimise. There is something to this, no doubt – but it must also be remembered first of all that pretty much every move of Google is motivated by profit, that’s the nature of the beast, and secondly that a lot of the complaints (including the Telegraph article) come from those with a vested interest in the status quo – the Search Engine Optimisers themselves. Of course profit is the prime motivation – but if profit motives drive businesses to do more privacy-friendly things, so much the better. That, as will be discussed below, is one of the keys to improving things for privacy.

The second of the moves was the launch of Google’s ‘Good to know’, a ‘privacy resource centre’, intended to help guide users in how to find out what’s happening to their data, and to use tools to control that data use. Quite how effective it will be has yet to be seen – but it is an interesting move, particularly in terms of how Google is positioning itself in relation to privacy. It follows from the much quieter and less user-friendly Google Dashboard and Google AdPreferences, which technically gave users quite a lot of information and even some control, but were so hard to find that for most intents and purposes they appeared to exist only to satisfy the demands of privacy advocates, and not to do anything at all for ordinary users. ‘Good to know’ looks like a step forward, albeit a small and fairly insubstantial one.
The third move is the one that has sparked the most interest – the announcement by Google executive Vic Gundotra that social networking service Google+ will ‘begin supporting pseudonyms and other types of identity.’ The Electronic Frontier Foundation immediately claimed ‘victory in the nymwars’, suggesting that Google had ‘surrendered’. Others have taken a very different view – as we shall see. The ‘nymwars’ as they’ve been dubbed concern the current policies of both Facebook and Google to require a ‘real’ identity in order to maintain an account with them – a practice which many (myself definitely included) think is pernicious and goes against the very things which have made the internet such a success, as well as potentially putting many people at real risks in the real world. The Mexican blogger who was killed and decapitated by drugs cartels after posting on an anti-drugs website is perhaps the most dramatic example of this, but the numbers of people at risk from criminals, authoritarian governments and others is significant. To many (again, myself firmly included), the issue of who controls links between ‘real’ and ‘online’ identities is one of the most important on the internet in its current state. The ‘nymwars’ are of fundamental importance – and so, to me, is Google’s announcement.
Some have greeted it with cynicism and anger. One blogger put it bluntly:
“Google’s statement is obvious bullshit, and here’s why. The way you “support” pseudonyms is as follows: Stop deleting peoples’ accounts when you suspect that the name they are using is not their legal name.

There is no step 2.”
The EFF’s claims of ‘victory’ in the nymwars is perhaps overstated – but Google’s move isn’t entirely meaningless, nor is it necessarily cynical. Time will tell exactly what Google means by ‘supporting pseudonyms’, and whether it will really start to deal with the problems brought about by a blanket requirement for ‘real’ identities – but this isn’t the first time that someone within Google has been thinking about these issues. Back in February, Google’s ‘Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering’ wrote a blog for the Google Policy Blog called ‘The freedom to be who you want to be…’, in which she said that Google recognised three kinds of user: ‘unidentified’, pseudonymous and identified. It’s a good piece, and well worth a read, and shows that within Google these debates must have been going on for a while, because the ‘real identity’ approach for Google Plus has at least in the past been directly contrary to what Whitten was saying in the blog.
That’s one of the reasons I think Vic Gundotra’s announcement is important – it suggests that the ‘privacy friendly’ people within Google are having more say, and perhaps even winning the arguments. When you combine it with the other two moves mentioned above, that seems even more likely. Google may be starting to position itself more firmly on the ‘privacy’ side of the fence, and using privacy to differentiate itself from the others in the field – most notably Facebook. To many people, privacy has often seemed like the last thing that Google would think about – that may be finally changing.
4Chan’s Chris Poole, in a brilliant speech to the Web 2.0 conference on Monday, challenged Facebook, Google and others to start thinking of identity in a more complex, nuanced way, and suggested that Facebook and Google, with their focus on real identities, had got it fundamentally wrong. I agreed with almost everything he said – and so, I suspect, did some of the people at Google. The tiny steps we’ve seen over the last few days may be the start of their finding a way to make that understanding into something real. At the very least, Google seem to be making a point of saying so.
That, for me, is the final and most important point. While Google and Facebook, the two most important players in the field, stood side by side in agreement about the need for ‘real’ identities, it was hard to see a way to ‘defeat’ that concept, and it felt almost as though victory for the ‘real’ identities side was inevitable, regardless of all the problems that would entail, and regardless of the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the privacy advocates, hackers and so forth about how wrong it was. If the two monoliths no longer stand together, that victory seems far less assured. If we can persuade Google to make a point of privacy, and if that point becomes something that brings Google benefits, then we all could benefit in the end. The nymwars certainly aren’t over, but there are signs that the ‘good guys’ might not be doomed to defeat.
Google is still a bit of a baby as far as privacy is concerned, making tiny steps but not really walking yet, let alone running. In my opinion, we need to encourage it to keep on making those tiny steps, applaud those steps, and it might eventually grow up…

UPDATED TO INCLUDE REFERENCE TO SEOS…

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One Response to Goo goo google’s tiny steps towards privacy…

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