NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Google+: Step right up if you want to help Google complete its profile of you

Earlier this week, Google finally took the wrappings off of the Facebook clone it has been developing, sparking a prolonged media frenzy about its efforts to catch up with Twitter and Facebook in the social networking arena.

By all accounts, Google+ represents the company’s most sophisticated attempt to build a social network. It is a top priority for CEO (and cofounder) Larry Page,  and, consequently, its rollout is being handled very carefully, as opposed to Google’s last social initiative, Buzz, which is widely considered to be a failure by tech pundits.

Instead of forcing Google+ on existing users, as it did with Buzz, Google has craftily made its new social network open by invitation only, at least until it comes out of “field trial”. The exclusivity factor has already given Google+ something of an aura, though intelligent reviews of the site do exist that have documented a number of flaws (such as this one).

Google claims that it developed Google+ because “online sharing is broken”. But that’s not the real reason it’s trying to build a social network. The real reason is that Google wants what Facebook has: access to personal and sensitive information about millions of people, including their relationships and interests.

Google has already tried to get access to some of Facebook’s data by asking Facebook for it. Facebook has said no, repeatedly spurning Google in favor of Microsoft, which it has an increasingly deep partnership with.

(Microsoft owns a 1.6% stake in Facebook and the two companies have an extensive search and advertising deal. Facebook uses Bing as its web search engine, and Bing uses data from Facebook to make searching social for users who are signed into both services. What’s more, next week, Facebook is reportedly going to announce that it has integrated Skype video calling into its platform).

So Google is building its own new social network, hoping that this time, better execution will result in a product that people will eagerly sign up to use… even if (as with Gmail) there are unanswered questions and privacy implications.

Those implications matter to us. Consequently, we will not be establishing a presence on Google+, no matter how popular it may become.

We actually began severing ties with Google back in 2009 in response to what we perceived to be a hostile attitude towards the idea of user privacy.

We no longer use any Google products to publish our website, measure our traffic, or host any content … and we haven’t for some time.

Unfortunately, too many organizations have moved in the other direction.

According to my Ghostery/NoScript/RequestPolicy stats, more than ninety percent of the websites I regularly visit – including those of nonprofits, government agencies, or nongovernmental organizations – have Google Analytics or Google Adsense embedded. That’s a pretty high figure.

No company – or government, for that matter – should have that kind of reach.

Google has gone from being a quirky search engine to a commercial, for-profit version of the National Security Agency. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here is a summary of the kinds of information Google presently has the ability to collect, in addition to people’s web surfing habits:

  • Names and contact information. Many people volunteer this information to Google when they sign up for its products. But Google also has a history of collecting it from unsuspecting families. For instance, investigations by several authorities in different countries have found that Google’s “Street View” cars harvested and stored complete names, screen names, passwords, email addresses, and telephone numbers in the process of taking pictures for Google Maps. (This privacy breach has become known as the Wi-Spy scandal).
  • Contacts.  Google has access to the address books of every person who uses Gmail, Google Talk (which is integrated with Gmail) or Android.
  • Documents and calendars. Google can scan and index the contents of documents and calendars created by people who use Google Docs.
  • Photos. Google allows users to upload photos to its datacenters using its Picasa product. There also exist desktop apps for Picasa which can scan and index all the pictures on a user’s computer. Google executives have also admitted the company developed sophisticated face-recognition technology (which could presumably be used in conjunction with Picasa), but it has never been released due to fears of a privacy backlash.
  • Messages. Google can scan and index the content of messages sent and received by users of Gmail. Presumably it can do the same with text messages sent or received through Android.
  • Voice patterns. Through its calling products, including Google Voice, Google has the ability to record its users’ voice patterns.
  • Credit card numbers. Google collects credit card numbers (and stores them) when users buy something on Google Checkout.
  • Medical records. Google is actually shutting down its Google Health product (which allowed users to upload their medical records to Google’s servers). However, the closure of Google Health doesn’t mean the company’s interest in indexing medical records has waned.
  • Location. Any phone running Google’s Android operating system has the ability to report a user’s location back to Google. Additionally, Google has apps for other smartphone platforms (Google Maps, Google Latitude) that can transmit location data back to Google.
  • Search history. Google logs search queries, through its search engine, through Android, and also through its Chrome browser, which is actually not open-source (because it includes a proprietary layer, which contains Google’s data-mining mechanisms).

SEOMoz, a local firm based here in the Seattle area, has a more complete and itemized list encompassing all of the above.

So now, in addition to all of the above, Google wants to start collecting the same information people volunteer to Facebook. That’s why Google+ exists.

That’s not a cynical or paranoid characterization. From the New York Times article about the launch of Google+:

Mr. Gundotra and Mr. Horowitz [the Google executives in charge of developing Google+] said that knowing more about individual Google users would improve all Google products, including ads, search, YouTube and maps, because Google will learn what people like and eventually personalize those products.

“To think we could achieve Google’s stated mission of organizing the world’s information absent people would be ludicrous,” Mr. Horowitz said.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. People forget that Google is a for-profit corporation, not a charitable organization. And Google’s business model, or strategy for making money, depends on eviscerating people’s privacy.

Perhaps former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said it best when he talked to The Atlantic last autumn. He said (and this is a real quote!)

Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it […] We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.

Schmidt made similar remarks on other occasions while he was CEO. But none of his other comments are both as succinct and deeply troubling as this gem. In less than fifty words, Schmidt does a better job explaining why Google is not to be trusted or patronized than any of Google’s fiercest critics ever could.

The introduction of Google+ may motivate some people to willingly surrender more information about themselves to Google. We hope it will have the opposite effect on our readers. If Google’s business practices bother you as much as they bother us, we urge you to join us in severing ties with Google.

This isn’t as hard as it might seem. For instance, there are some great startups out there building innovative search engines that excel at finding good content and weeding out search spam – like DuckDuckGo and Blekko.

If you run a website, consider switching to open-source alternatives to Google products, like WordPress (for blogging), Piwik (for analytics) or OpenX (for managing and selling ad inventory).

This Fourth of July weekend, think about declaring your independence from Google. Open some doors and do some exploration. Take charge of your digital life and liberate yourself from the clutches of a company that thinks there’s billions of dollars to be made by destroying privacy as we know it.

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3 Comments

  1. Let’s see how Facebook compares:
    * Names and contact information (given by user)
    * Contacts (given by user)
    * Photos (Facebook photos, now with face recognition)
    * Voice patterns (Skype partnership)
    * Credit card numbers (Facebook credits)
    * Medical records (advantage Facebook, though nobody used this)
    * Location (Facebook checkins)
    * Search history (via Bing’s embedded search, or the social search alliance)

    So, with the exception of a now-shutting-down medical service that was entirely optional and unused, deep Facebook users have given all of the same information to that company as well. Of course a FB user need not give all that information, but you need not use all of Google’s services either.

    I have to wonder why you still maintain your presence on Facebook. Either you don’t actually believe the reasons you wrote, or you apply them inconsistently.

    It’s also interesting that you mention the tight collaboration and sharing of information between Microsoft and Facebook, yet you aren’t troubled by it. The combined information gathering of this alliance not only includes all of what Google could see, but goes further, to the very desktop software you presumably use.

    Thank you for giving us the Redmond perspective. Say hi to my ex-coworkers at Microsoft.

    P.S. your “Commenting Guidelines” is a broken link.

    # by Bruce :: July 2nd, 2011 at 10:45 PM
    • Bruce, we have written very critically about Facebook on a number of occasions. Like this one. Or this one.

      You’re correct that Facebook collects much of the same information that Google does. But Facebook, despite its partnership with Microsoft, doesn’t have the reach that Google does. Besides owning a lot of properties…. YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, Orkut, etc., Google scripts and ads are embedded into millions of websites. You can see for yourself by installing the Firefox add-ons I mentioned.

      Yes, some sites have Facebook widgets embedded, but the number completely pales in comparison to sites with Google Adsense or Analytics.

      That doesn’t mean my team and I aren’t concerned with Facebook’s (or Microsoft’s) privacy practices. If Facebook continues down the path it is on, we’ll sever ties with it too, just as we did with Google.

      I myself have never been a “deep Facebook user”, as you put it. My Facebook profile contains almost no personal information, even information that could be considered public knowledge. I do not upload photos to Facebook – period. I don’t buy Facebook credits. I have location-sharing and “instant personalization on partner websites” (including Bing) completely disabled. Furthermore, much of what I post to my Facebook news feed consists of stories that are critical of Facebook on privacy.

      Similarly, though we have severed ties with Google ourselves, we have not blocked Google’s spider from crawling our website. So people can still use Google’s search engine to find us. And people can still visit our website using Google’s Chrome browser.

      By the way… I’m a Kubuntu/LibreOffice user. 🙂

      # by Andrew :: July 3rd, 2011 at 12:43 PM
  2. Well done, Andrew. I don’t use any of those Google products either, and I give Facebook the bare minimum of personal information.

    # by ivan :: July 3rd, 2011 at 7:05 AM