Perhaps they should have expected this. Years ago, the founders of Google adopted as their semi-official motto the phrase "Don’t Be Evil." And that, for Google’s critics, has been the gift that keeps on giving.
Every time Google announces something different – unveiling Google+, tweaking its search algorithms, quietly adding location tracking on Android phones – writers sharpen their knives and roll out the "evil" motto.
"Maybe it’s time for Google to rethink its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ motto," wrote the Washington Post‘s Joshua Topolsky this week. "Google Inc. is evil," began Matt Hartley in Thursday’s Financial Post; "or maybe it isn’t." We could go on, but you get the idea.
What spurred this most recent flurry of "evil" headlines? A sweeping series of privacy changes that Google is soon putting into place, changes that will potentially affect millions of users.
"Our new policy covers multiple products and features," begins Google’s announcement on its "Policies" page, "reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google."
In simplest terms, starting March 1, Google will begin combining all the personal and private information it collects on individual users across its many products into one data set. And that data set will personally tailor search responses and customise any Google product into an individual "experience."
Let’s take that apart a bit.
Staying inside the Googleverse
Google has dozens of products that each collect personal data on users. Its famous search engine, for example, puts tracking cookies on your computer (or phone or tablet) that allows it to remember all the searches you’ve conducted in the past, and shape new queries based on that history. That means if you’ve searched for restaurants in London recently, new search terms are more likely to be steered first toward London even before you hit enter, through Google’s "Instant" predictive search function.
Its YouTube service similarly tracks videos watched, while Gmail stores hundreds (if not more) of names and addresses of people you’ve written to. Google Docs holds documents, some of them possibly very private, in one lockbox, while Google Calendar keeps your scheduled appointments in another, recording where and with whom. And Google+, its social network challenge to Facebook, holds information not just on you and your likes, but for all your friends as well.
Separately, all these applications potentially hold gigabytes of data on any one user.Together, Google will have intimate profiles of users that it says will give users a seamless experience across all of Google. Search for "Tom’s Restaurant" and it may remind you of your last appointment with Dr. Tom Scrapebone, offer a review of a local eatery your friend Tom Eatslots liked, recommend a music video by the group "Tom Tom Club" based on your stored music files, and suggest purchasing a book by your favorite author Thomas Inkstain by using your Google Wallet.
It may sound creepy, but frankly Google’s aim is no different than those of rivals Facebook, Apple, or even Amazon: to retain users within the universe of Google products and applications for as long as possible. In short, keeping everyone inside the "Googleverse." However, combine this with the growing reach of Google’s Chrome browser, and the popularity of its Android mobile platform, and you’re suddenly talking really creepy.
Resistance may be futile
There are options, of a sort. Users with various Google accounts can simply not log in; Google won’t be able to combine the private data pools, but of course users won’t have access to any of the services or documents they’ve used in the past. People can also leave Google, opting for other computing services, leaving them only with the struggle of moving all their data from Google to someplace else. Or internet users can simply not use Google, choosing Yahoo! for searches, Hotmail for messages and Facebook for networking. Each of these options, however, present their own unique privacy challenges.
As Google says in its announcement, "this stuff matters." And it’s all part of a longer, larger trend that increasingly pits individual privacy against the online experience.