Google’s recent troubles give an insight into how much and why privacy matters

By February 28, 2012Privacy

Danny Sulliivan put up a good post yesterday: On Google & Being “Evil”. His main point was that Google is now a very big company and that inevitably means they will make mistakes, including ones which impact their users’ privacy, but they are not any more evil (or good) than any other large company. I agree with that, they are becoming no different to other large vertically integrated service providers like Facebook and Apple. As Danny points out, there is one important historical difference though, and that is Google’s “Do no evil positioning”, which gives the worlds largest search engine much further to fall than its competitors.

Danny’s main point is interesting, but it is his description of Google’s recent problems and the government and public response to them which I am going to focus on today.

Let’s start with a recap on what Google has done.

Most importantly they are changing their privacy policies. If you use any Google services you will have seen a pop-up informing you of this fact, and if you are anything like me you will have seen so many pop-ups that you have started to get annoyed by them. Also, if you are anything like me (and 90% of the rest of the population) you won’t have read them, but you will have caught sight of various headlines suggesting that you should be worried about what these changes mean.

Beyond the privacy changes Google has made a few gaffs recently. Danny lists three:

The response to this has been markedly different in different parts of society. On the one hand politicians, journalists and the intelligentsia are outraged, whilst on the other hand the public doesn’t seem to care. The picture at the end of this post shows the top results on a Google News search for “Google privacy policy changes”. The negativity is clear for all to see. Yet Danny Sullivan reports that for the mass public:

there’s no mass movement to abandon Google. Take a tour of its help forums, as I’ve explained before. [Privacy] It’s not a huge topic.

I’ve been having an increasing number of conversations in recent weeks with folk (largely educated, wealthy, middle aged folk) who think that a privacy backlash is coming, but I just don’t see it. Further, when I press these folks on what the precise issue is, or what might precipitate a sudden elevation of this issue in the mind of Joe Public they have no answers.

However, politicians are now legislating for privacy and companies have to deal with that. The important thing to note though is that it is a regulatory issue, not a product issue. Hence internet companies need to deal with privacy issues in the same way as financial services companies have dealt with regulators for years. They need to lobby to make sure they don’t get blind-sided, and many will try to use regulation for competitive advantage.

I was at a dinner for our portfolio company StrikeAd last night. They operate in the mobile advertising industry where everybody is very concerned about the privacy implications of targeting and tracking users. As a result voluntary codes of conduct are being drawn up, they are being endorsed by standards bodies, and those bodies are then certifying vendors as compliant, and listing service providers as qualified to provide certification. If you want to play in certain segments of the market, for example ad verification, then you need to play the game and make sure you are on the list of vendors qualified to provide certification. In other words, for companies in this market lobbying and being part of the regulatory process is as important as it is for banks and telcos.

Privacy is important, and users need to be protected, but as you can see from the story in the paragraph above a lot is being done already to prevent abuse of personal data. I think we will see more regulation in this area and companies will devote increasing resources to making sure personal data is protected and only used in the right ways, but I see no evidence that the greater public cares enough that we will see anything more than that.


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  • Nic – with regard to Google the points you make may well be right (I agree that these are not the most major nor the worst privacy issues), but I don’t agree that Privacy is a non-issue, nor that there won’t be a backlash.  I wrote about this on Sunday on my blog (  The trade in our data is getting more severe and there are clear privacy abuses (e.g. Apple address gate) that cannot be justified, and uses of our data that go beyond what is reasonable (e.g. why does YouTube app need access to my phone calls or ability to access my camera?).  It is perfectly reasonable to trade our data for free services, but as consumers we should know what that trade is – it should not be shrouded in secrecy.  You would not accept a business trade where you were not aware of what you were signing up to give away.  Our industry should therefore work to promote clarity in privacy first of all.  Additionally, and I’ll admit an interest here with my businesses and, we should look at other business models where privacy can be assured and hence give the consumer choice.

  • Hi Julian – you might be correct on the rights and wrongs, and fairness of the implicit trades (although that is debatable) but the key point is that the consumer seems happy enough with the deal s/he is getting.

  • Nic – the consumer is apparently happy with the deal they are getting – for now.  But, and this is the question that none of us can answer definitively, for how long?  There are clear rumblings of discontent as the increasing media focus in the non-technical press shows (Wall St Journal “What they know” series and Sunday Times article on Sunday are examples) – will these rumblings stay just that, decrease or rise to a crescendo?  My bet is they are set to rise, but it is only a bet with odds that are far from certain – a bit like betting one of the columns in roulette (and hoping that zero doesn’t come up to surprise us all!).

  • Hi Julian – we are in agreement in that the rumblings are increasing. The Daily Mail is beating this drum in the UK almost as hard as they are bashing social media these days. Where we differ is what is likely to happen next. As you say, at this point nobody knows, but we are forming opinions, and my gut is that the rumblings stay as just that.

  • Hi Martin – what is the ‘impact’ that people are currently unaware of?
    It seems to me that at the moment the impact is limited to potential risks of abuse that are yet to happen. We trust our banks with data they could abuse and also our loyalty card providers, yet they don’t abuse it. Facebook and Google could be the same. At least, that’s the argument ☺

  • Anonymous

    Hi Nic, 

    As you say, we trust many institutions with our data and they don’t abuse it, leaving that to News International (!) though I must express some surprise, that Twitter is to sell all Tweets to marketeers…….  Tell me, how do you feel about marketeers reviewing your “person to person” messages via Twitter? It makes me inherently uneasy…..

  • I think it will take more than feelings of unease before people change away from the services they love.

  • Nic – it isn’t always the companies who abuse the data, but what they open up to abuse.  Big data sets are not anonymous – many people have proven that the larger the data set the less anonymity you have because people can search down on your specific characteristics; however, this isn’t (for me) the most egregious issue.

    A big issue is that of “self harm” – my ability to do something without thinking of the implications that will harm me later because the internet and privacy are different to the non-digital world we know and privacy.
    Using Facebook as an example is dangerous because everyone has a go at them, but it is an easy one so I will.  Facebook when you sign up asks you for some simple data and then encourages you to find friends and then share with them – the clear implication being that you’re sharing with your friends – NOT the whole world.  Yet the default sharing privacy settings are very carefully set such that all your important posts are by default set to share with the world – who would know as an ordinary user?  So over time you are encouraged and many do share or over-share.  At the time that isn’t an issue any more than over-sharing in the pub was an issue for me at 18 (or later as I am a rugby player!); however, the internet has permanence and search which the pub doesn’t.  Future friends can see my past behaviour (did you tell your wife about what you got up to with previous girlfriends?? – Facebook timeline is going to be a minefield) and worse people who aren’t my friends can see it by search..  Privacy is not baked in by design and hence it is all to easy to “self harm” without knowing it – or realising it until too late.If the privacy debate was simply about some level of arcane possibility that a business may do me harm through my over-sharing then I think your position would be correct; however, this isn’t like the banks or supermarkets any more – its big businesses implementing a “confusopoly” to encourage over-sharing for their own benefits and its too many smaller businesses abusing the digital process.  Our business could stand a level of privacy issues just as physical businesses have forever, but can we stand a wave or even a tidal wave?  I’m not happy standing by and assuming we can – I think there is an issue and we’d be better nipping it in the bud than letting it grow.

  • Again, some agreement and some differences. I agree that over-sharing on social media is an issue, but rather than regulation I think the solution is people learning behaviours appropriate for the new medium, just as we had to learn how to behave on email. As with email people will make mistakes during before the right way to behave is generally assimilated, and that is regrettable, but not the end of the world.
    Moreover, I think that over time social media businesses will start to see it as being in their own interests to help people to share appropriately rather than simply share as much as possible. In fact, I think you can see Facebook and Google starting to think in this way already.

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