Digital privacy

2012-01-31 07:13

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

Big social media company changes its privacy rules. The internet goes nuts. The tech press fuels the flames. Much hand-wringing and shouts of promises not kept ensue.

Sound familiar?

This time it’s not Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who’s losing sleep. It’s Google’s Larry Page. The search giant changed its rules mid-game, and it’s getting an earful.

Google’s privacy changes are both less and more than meets the eye. The less: Google has been collecting all the data in question already, most for a long time.

The more: It’s one thing to collect data, quite another to change how you use it without giving your customers any flexibility. Google should be lauded for über transparency, but it’s hard to like ”Our Way or the Highway.”

The concept is pretty simple. You’ve allowed Google to cull a lot of personal facts and behavioral details, but each of the services Google provides has had its own privacy rules, and for the most part none of that information about you in each was indexed against the data in others.

Your Gmail details are over here, and your calendar deets are over there, and never the twain met. It makes lots of sense to tear down the walls between all the different Google services you may use, so that your likes and habits and movements and appointments are all aware of each other.

The question (and this is the eternal question about digital privacy): Is it as good for you as it is for Google to have all that information mashed up?

I’ve argued that the interests of Facebook, its members and the marketers who want to exploit that audience aren’t necessarily aligned. Facebook also hoards scads of information about you, and for about as long as Google has.

The social network’s privacy rules are, shall we say, somewhat more complex than Google’s. And nobody seems to care much, if you can infer that from Facebook’s steady increase in membership. (Now at 800 million, roughly 11% of the planet.)

Google has portrayed its changes as being part of an ever-improving symbiosis. One of the examples they highlight is actually a reasonable one: You have an appointment but you’re accidentally headed in the opposite direction.

In doing so you run the risk of being late. Using all the things Google and your smartphone know - your calendar, your location, the time of day, the traffic, weather conditions - a voice channels HAL 9000 and says: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”

Google’s changes, then, aren’t about the sleazy side of the ad business where non-anonymous facts about you are sold to the highest bidder.

They’re about using computing power no individual can possibly have to synthesise facts we can’t readily process that then make our lives simpler, more efficient and more satisfying.

Yes, this means allowing a public company to take custody of our most precious personal property: the building blocks of identity, personality and tendencies we may not even realise we have.

It’s not as if we haven’t been steadily prepared to take our relationship with the internet to a new level. Google got the same level of privacy-concern pushback when it launched Gmail nearly eight years ago, introducing the unheard of notion that your mail would be sniffed to serve up targeted ads.

Gmail, of course, is now a rousing success, and it ushered in the rest of Google’s eco-system - Google Docs, Google Calendar and ultimately Google+.

It also helped create Facebook, only slightly more than a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s eye when Gmail launched. Users of the world’s largest social network seem to have completely recalculated the TMI versus ads equation.

Our increased comfort level with this trade-off - my life is “improved” in direct proportion to my transparency and therefore marketability - is the foundation of a cultural revolution of which changes in online mores are only a part.

Both Google and Facebook - which just forced Timeline on members - know that the future is about circulating as much currency from everyone’s social graph as possible.

After all, Google is only now surfacing Google+ in its search results. And they both know that if they treat this privilege with the proper respect, we will just let them do it.

And though there will be missteps and adjustments and things we didn’t foresee, the privacy debate will recede and even become boring.

Because eventually we’ll grow more comfortable with what I suspect the debate is really about. If you’ll allow me one wild, psychobabble musing: Could it be that we’re just coming to grips with the possibility that Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves? - Reuters

*(Abell is the New York Bureau Chief for Wired and a former Reuters staffer.)