Is Google the new Big Brother?

Over the past few weeks, the Internet has been buzzing about the major change in privacy policy recently made by Google. The change, enacted on March 1, effectively replaces the individual privacy policies of around sixty Google products (with the exception of a few, such as Google Books and Chrome) with a single policy. While the change is lauded by many for streamlining the Google experience, its details have been inspiring a high degree of discomfort in users and legal advocates from across the world and the political spectrum, for a variety of reasons.

Under the new policy, information collected about individual registered users on sites like YouTube, Gmail, Google+, etc. will be merged and stored in personal data files. These files, in turn, will be used by Google to highly personalize a user’s Internet experience, enabling more customized search suggestions, better video recommendations, and advertising that more accurately reflects users’ interests.

This doesn’t mean the company will be collecting much more data than it has been, but what it does collect will be shared across applications.For example, if you mention “classic rock” in a Gmail message to a friend, your next YouTube suggestion might be an AC/DC video; if you type a friend’s unusual name on Blogger, it will not show up as being misspelled on your next search engine query. The end result is uncanny to many who feel their technology is getting a little too smart, but it also has some disturbing ramifications on a deeper and somewhat more ideological level.

The new Google policy is ultimately intended to represent a further step into a new era of technological personalization, in which computer media will be easier, simpler, more accessible, and more responsive—more human, in some ways, and more democratic. Users will no longer have to constantly transfer data manually from application to application, instead relying on the intelligence of the system to smooth their way. Companies like Google will be able to find better strategies for marketing and competition based on the real interactions people make with each other and with their media. However, as positive and innovative as the idea is, realistic web users are concerned that their private information may fall into hands they’d rather it not—those of identity thieves, hackers, government watch agencies, and others. Alongside practical fears of information theft rise nagging reminders of once-absurd Orwellian paranoia.

Prominent among the concerns of users and legal groups is the fact that the policy itself is all-or-nothing: you can’t opt out of the unified policy and still expect to use the broader range of Google products. This makes it extremely difficult for Android phone owners and others who have grown dependent on Google technology to avoid the changes, despite their concerns. In addition, there are worries that competing companies—like Facebook, which already customizes ads to members’ posts—will jump on the bandwagon in an attempt to remain viable, leaving users no option but to share their information or avoid media altogether.

Although Google maintains its new policy to be perfectly legal, and has agreed to be annually audited by the Federal Trade Commission for violations and inappropriate use, many citizens and privacy rights groups still oppose the  alterations. It remains to be seen whether such opposition will grow over time, or diminish as the public becomes more accustomed to the higher degree of observation. To be sure, many parties will be observing the resulting legal and social developments with interest in the months to come.

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One Response to “Is Google the new Big Brother?”

  1. Lawrence Sanders
    December 31, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

    For over 20 years I have been impressed by the clear headedness and concise thought that goes into anything Ames says or writes about.

    Makes me proud to be Ames’ Dad

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