When Google launched Local Search, it introduced personalization, the art of guessing where you are and what you wanted to find, and presenting search results to suit. Since its debut in 2009, the local map feature has been ever-present, highlighting locations that are in the geographical area indicated by your IP address, or, if you dare provide it, by your recorded location.
People were already uneasy about Google’s data-collecting activities. As early as December 2008, the New York Times highlighted concerns that personal privacy might be the trade-off for convenience in retrieving information from the web. Google conceded that it collected a wide range of data, but that it “did not threaten anyone’s privacy.” Skeptics from all corners reserved judgement, and the debate continued, unabated.
The following year, when challenged during an interview for CNBC’s “Inside the Mind of Google”, CEO Eric Schmidt fanned the flames with his now infamous riposte, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Schmidt’s seemingly casual comment revealed a gross underestimation of the weight of public opinion on the matter.
In a later interview with the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt seemed to suggest that what the public wants above all is convenience, and for Google to tell you what you should be doing, minute by minute. He was quick to blame a growing “anti-Google” lobby for encouraging extreme reaction to the company’s initiatives.
Internet privacy watchdogs have been on red alert ever since. Everybody from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Electronic Frontier Foundation weighed in, landing some telling counterpunches.
The EFF cited a dangerously cavalier attitude as the cause of Google’s failure to understand “basic lessons about privacy.” Twisting the knife, it also reminded Schmidt of his 2005 spat with CNET, which used Google search to reveal an uncomfortable amount of his personal data.
For years, academics of all persuasions have researched, dissected and analyzed the issue; it will not surprise you to learn that few of them agree.
In 2010, the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University concluded that “internet technology [is] leaving privacy regulation far behind,” and advocated regulatory restraint. Conversely, and less than a year earlier, the UC Davis Law Review identified a culture of “online fear” among policymakers, and contended that surrendering to concerns over Internet privacy will limit the potential of the web severely.
It’s tempting, but unfair, to paint Google as the sole villain of the piece, purely on account of its dominant share of U.S. searches; others, notably AOL, have breached individual privacy on a grand scale before now. Yet, Google can be its own worst enemy, often contriving a crisis where none need exist and handing its opponents a smoking gun.
In November 2010, the Federal Communications Commission investigated Google after learning that cars used to record images for the company’s Street View project had been collecting personal information from wireless networks owned by consumers. Google never revealed the extent of the data, collected accidentally, but accepted that the company had “failed badly.”
At the end of 2010, the Federal Trade Commission put the finishing touches to its proposed framework for Internet businesses. The FTC’s primary recommendation, that online organizations implement a “do not track” mechanism to ring-fence individual privacy, found instant favor with the civil liberties lobby. Almost as quickly, the advertising industry trumpeted self-regulation as the universal panacea.
Don’t expect it to end there. The annual market for local advertising is about $140 billion, with an increasing online element. Google intends to have its share one way or another; as Schmidt puts it, “You get a billion people doing something, there’s lots of ways to make money.” Scary, right?
When faced with the choice, do you opt for convenience or privacy? Public outrage makes good headlines, but the evidence suggests that most people are talking the talk, not walking the walk. Rapid growth in mobile search usage shows an increasing number of people that don’t mind revealing their location and their search habits – excellent news for Google and its competitors, but still a major concern for the general public.