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