Big Brother is watching you

As Google are change their usage policy again, Michael O’Sullivan looks at what exactly this means for everyone’s privacy

It has happened again. Google has altered its user settings to allow it to personalise advertising further. Marketing companies are hailing the move as a masterstroke, while internet privacy advocates are up in arms. What could they possibly have done to cause such a divisive response?

It all boils down to this: you see a product you like or dislike online; you rate it or write a review for others to see. The practice seems innocuous enough. You’re being a good Samaritan and informing others of the merits of a product, or you’re feeling mean and decide to tell prospective shoppers that the latest Pez dispenser got you pregnant when you sat on it, because people will believe everything they read on the internet.

The problem people have with Google’s new policy is that it will use these reviews as part of targeted advertising towards people’s friends. If you give five stars to a random mug on eBay, should your friend search eBay or mugs, your head (probably not the mug they were looking for) will pop up underneath a search result spouting the merits of the ergonomic handle of the latest in ceramic tea-holding technology.

This seems innocent enough, and possibly even seems like a natural progression on Google’s part. If you write a review, would it not make sense to show the review to your friends, who are more likely to trust your judgement than the average stranger?

Marketing companies love the idea, and are falling over themselves to support it. “From a user perspective, there is a higher chance of them buying a product if it is endorsed by a friend,” said Kunal Jeswani, Chief Digital Officer at Ogilvy & Mather, India. Jeswani’s view has been reflected by marketing firms across the globe.

Internet privacy groups, however, are furious with the developments. “We are not comfortable with user information being used without their permission, especially since Google’s privacy standards are not very high,” said Uday Mehta, associate director at Consumer Unity and Trust Society International.

Their anger is understandable. Google has been slowly but surely chipping away at people’s privacy by introducing minor changes to their usage policy over the past few years. While they claim most of it is for advertising purposes and that your information will not be shared with people other than those you know, many are understandably uncomfortable at the invasion.

Hypothetically, what would happen if you reviewed a product on the Ann Summers website, with the notion that very few people you know will ever be likely to look at it? What happens when your parents decide to get a bit more adventurous with the passage of time? They do a cursory internet search to see what’s out there, when all of a sudden they are presented with your head placed beside a picture of an emotionally distressing object, touting its merits to the universe. A case of too much information if ever there was one.

Google have said they will be keeping your information private and not selling it on to third party advertising groups. They are also pointing out that there is an opt-out feature should you want your information kept completely private. Most are starting to doubt their integrity, however, as they introduced a series of changes before this announcement.

Anyone who has a YouTube account may have noticed a few weeks ago that their entire setup was hurled into disarray. Google had generously decided to give all its users Google+ accounts, and so asked its users to merge their details from one account to the other for better connectivity. What has resulted is an unmitigated mess that results in users having to decide whether they want to enter YouTube via their old account or through their new Google+ account every time they log in.

This wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that if you pick the wrong one, all your subscriptions are gone and you must log out and back in again to pick the right account. The fact that they introduced this messy integration mere weeks before their latest announcement says a lot about where Google is going.

By giving people a free social networking account, they gain access to their friends and family members details should they start using the service, allowing them to target advertising even better than they could before. They are now being accused of attempting to integrate everything people do on the internet into one area that they can exploit for advertising purposes with little to no regard given to user friendliness.

The argument remains, however, that if you review or rate a product online, you are waiving your right to privacy by posting in a public forum. Whether people agree with this latest shift in policy or not, it is unlikely people will stop using the service. What remains to be seen is how far Google will go before people will turn against them, and if by that stage it will be too late.

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