Don't Be Fooled By 'Don't Be Evil'

jkim
Jae Kim Director of Social Media Product, Actiance

Posted on February 19th 2012

Don't Be Fooled By 'Don't Be Evil'
The Wall Street Journal reported that Google has been secretly harvesting user information from Safari browsers.  
In the headline story, WSJ called out Google's action as "iPhone tracking" which was done against privacy policy implemented by Apple's Safari browser.  Google has been injecting cookie even when users on Safari browser did not opt in to such practice, and just stopped before WSJ cover story broke a few days ago.
It's interesting that WSJ ran this story just as Google tries to expand its social layer across their product offerings.  It's no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp who owns WSJ, has been butting heads against Google.  At the time Google is under increased privacy scrutiny, Mr. Murdoch may have used this opportunity to settle the earlier score with Google.  It's also notable that this story broke while Apple and Google rivalry is heating up as Thomas Claburn talked about on Information Week.
WSJ's explanation of how Google got around Safari privacy setting;
for most geeks, this is not something new.
What is clear, however, is that Google is over-reaching to collect user data even without user consent.  
As Google revised its privacy statement to get ready for more user data collection push, Google is no longer playing by its rule, "don't be evil".  Maybe I am naive in thinking that Google would actually stick to its own motto.  After all, Google is in business of collecting user data, and using them to target more and better ads to all of us using their products.

If it is free, you are the product.  Although Google search may seem free, every one of us are paying for the search by accepting the sponsored results to show up on the top.  In some sense, Google has  been increasing the service fee by asking all of us to provide them more data.

Is increasing the fee evil?  No, I don't think it is.  But if you are being charged more and you don't even know by how much exactly?  Hey, that seems pretty evil to me.  And that's what I'm concerned about Google's strategy to combine all their product data to create user persona.  Most non-technical Google users don't realize how much information Google will have about you once the new privacy policy goes in effect.

WSJ may have had other motive in breaking this story, but Google has increased their service fee too much for some of us.


jkim

Jae Kim

Director of Social Media Product, Actiance

With solid 12+ years software engineering background in all aspects of high tech startup, I survey, categorize, read, follow links, read more, ponder, look at bigger picture, strategize, and articulate trends on social network and high tech startups. I am Director of Social Media Product at Actiance (formerly known as FaceTime).  I also run the Future of Social Network blog.

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Comments

Nice post spoiled, perhaps, by an over-sensationalist headline. Quite a lot has been written by the media on Google's bypass of Safari cookie control. I think it is important to contextualise what happened and why. The Safari browser on mobile phones has a security setting regarding third party cookies which is set by default to 'Never'. This setting is different from the Safari version for desktop browsing. Third party cookies track user behavior across specific networks (usually ad networks) - the moment the user gets outside it the tracking stops. Safari's opaque blocking policy (iPhone owners have to struggle to find the settings) made it impossible for Google to make the +1 button work in ads. So they by-passed the settings. So did: the ad networks of Vibrant Media, Media Innovation Group and PointRoll. 

Google's cookie had a life expectancy of between 12-24 hours and it did not track any personal information. 

Was it right to by-pass a browser setting (even one which is hostile by default) without more consulation, publicity or information? No. But we, as consumers, expect Google to provide a better and better service in everything at an ever lower cost and the company cannot do this without data. It could perhaps have handled the communication problem better but to say it was 'Evil' is as much of a stretch as the totally misleading and entirely wrong headline used by WSJ which shouted "Google tracks iPhones". 

In a social media age where your every post and every comment is going to be accessible to and scrutinised by people who are technically knowledgeable we owe it to ourselves first and our audience second to be a little more accurate with our headlines.