Google's new privacy policy: where's the real debate?

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Google's Gmail man video screenshot

Next week, Google's new privacy policy will come into operation, despite the efforts of the Electronic Privacy & Information Centre to force the US Federal Trade Commission to outlaw it.

What's new about the new policy is that it applies across different Google products. So, instead of Gmail, YouTube, Search, Blogger, Picassa, Google+, Google Maps and others having their own policies, the new one will cover them all. It allows Google to draw on personal data about a user that it gleaned in one context to serve ads in another.

The standard journalistic response to this kind of announcement is the story of angry but helpless users or small lobby groups battling against change imposed by a ruthless Silicon Valley giant. Google's latest move has produced the usual crop of such stories.

The Washington Post at least had the good grace to sound a little embarrassed about its "non-scientific" poll which asked self-selected readers the unashamedly loaded question: "Will you cancel your Google account?" Result? Of 13,500 respondents, 66% said they would indeed close their accounts. Highly unlikely if you ask me.

In the eyes of the media, Google stopped being the plucky outsider long ago. The negative effect of success on the image of a tech business is apparently inevitable. Facebook is now just on the cusp of the transition. Even Microsoft was once the underdog, challenging the Goliath of IBM before acquiring its reputation as the evil empire.

And it seems that Microsoft is enjoying Google's bad press. As Rory Cellan-Jones points out, the Seattle giant joined in the carping with its own video - ironically, on YouTube, and, even more ironically (when I click), under a Google message saying "We're changing our privacy policy. This stuff matters" and a link to more information

Microsoft's video complains about how Gmail uses an email's content words to trigger ads. You might think that Microsoft's own Hotmail works like that too, but, according to a Microsoft blog explaining its anti-Google campaign, it doesn't. Hmm. Why not exactly?

Gmail has never made any secret of using the content of emails to select ads, boasting that the process makes ads more "useful and relevant", while reassuring anyone who imagines otherwise that "no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information."

Search engine expert Danny Sullivan usefully puts the latest Google story in perspective, saying that, if you dislike Google's unified privacy policy, you could always cancel your account and choose which other unified privacy policy - such as Microsoft's or Facebook's - you'd prefer.

But there's a real job for the media here: to move away from reporting rather vague fears about technology to investigating specifics, while also discussing more broadly what people do and don't need to worry about.

The problem for news coverage is that the story is either too big or too small.

Too small because specific objections often lie in details that are too niggly to find a place on a regular news bulletin. (Did you realise you can't opt out of having your name and face appearing as a 'Sponsored Story' if you 'Like' a business on Facebook?)

Too big because large social trends are hard to tackle in a short report.

But the media starting point needn't be a search for objectors (of whom there will always be some, if not many) or the assumption that every change is some kind of trick. I suspect, for instance, that most users of Google and Facebook accept the idea of targeted advertising in order to pay for a free service. But in the media the unspoken basis of fears is that 'someone in the company is watching me'.

Google's new privacy policy may indeed be making important changes to what we are revealing to it. What's needed is a serious debate about what people want to share with such a company or with their friends or family. Facebook, for instance, trumpets the "granularity" of its privacy controls (complexity to you or me). There is much discussion of that as technology, but little about the complexity of the new social decisions required of every user by the very nature of social networks. Am I comfortable showing family pictures to my work colleagues? How much time and energy should I devote to keeping in touch with distant acquaintances compared to my closest friends?

For US academic Jeff Jarvis, the borderline between public and private is shifting - with the public expanding and the private shrinking, and the world getting better as a result. Is he right? As we move into Google's new world, it's time to supplement stock responses to privacy stories with real analysis of their impact on the new society that is forming around us.


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