You Get What You Pay For

Google’s new privacy policy kicks in today. So far nobody’s turning over cars and smashing shop windows — but then, where I live everybody drives a pickup truck and we don’t really have much in the way of plate glass, so I could just be missing the excitement.

The integration of Google’s multitude of individual privacy policies into one overarching set of rules has attracted a surprising amount of attention, given how few of us have ever actually read the terms of use for any of our Google services. I, for one, almost always click that little “I’ve read it” button without ever actually doing so. Until recently I had no idea what they were changing the privacy policy from, let alone to.

It should be pointed out that Google hasn’t exactly been working in the shadows: anyone who uses any Google service has seen the notification banner that pops up again and again, demanding to be read, explaining the new policy. It would be hard to accuse them of ambushing us with this. If we haven’t read the new rules, I’m not sure that’s entirely their fault.

On the internet, your privacy is a form of currency. You don’t send money to Google or Microsoft or Yahoo to compensate them for the use of their various online services; instead you trade your right to be unnoticed. They provide the services without attaching a price, and then interpret your use of those services to amass information about who you are, what you buy, what interests you, and so on, and that data is then converted to cash by selling it to advertisers. In the advertising world “Knowledge is Power”: if the advertiser knows what you like, what you’ll buy, then he can target his efforts more effectively, and presumably make more money.

Is this a bad thing? Hard to say. I’m not likely to be tempted by a flashy ad for plus-size women’s clothing, but computer software or books will get me every time. Is anyone actually forcing me to buy things I don’t need? Not really. Does a newspaper ad or a television commercial hold a gun to my head? Of course not. Lord knows we’ve had this discussion a million times over the last fifty years. Temptation is the price you pay for a service that you can live without if you feel that the price is just too high.

Read the privacy policies:

  • If you’re concerned about your online privacy, read the policy before you click “OK”. There are sometimes fine points to the policies and practices that are not going to be explicitly expressed, but you can at least get an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.
  • Choose carefully what online services you use. If you don’t need six different email addresses, then don’t have six different email addresses. Every Flickr account, Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, etc., is another chunk of data about who you are, who your friends are, data that somebody somewhere is buying and selling. That’s how they make their money. Deal with it, or stay away.
  • Decide what, if anything, you’re actually afraid of. Personally, I don’t really care if somebody knows what websites I visit. For better or for worse, I don’t have all that much to hide. On the other hand, I’d rather not have just anybody reading my emails, because I use email for business purposes and the information involved is not just mine, but also my customers’. For this reason, I focus on securing my email, but I don’t worry about covering my tracks when I’m browsing.

If this were China or Saudi Arabia, I think the issues at stake here would be more meaningful, but for most of us, I would hope that Big Brother doesn’t really give a damn what we’re up to in front of that flickering screen at two in the morning. Our elected representatives have been working very hard to change that, of late, but so far they’ve been held at bay. (As long as we remember, as a culture, that piracy and privacy are often two sides of the same coin, so that it’s impossible to attack one without collateral damage to the other, we may have the luxury of spending time worrying about these issues.)

There’s a lot about Google’s new policy that I don’t like, but there’s nothing that I didn’t already dislike in the old, individual policies, and I get a lot of use out of YouTube and Gmail and Picasa and Google Search and Google Analytics without paying a dime to them directly. There’s nothing going on there that I can’t live with, and the services I’m getting are worth the cost, at least to me. Personally, I am far more bothered by the same actions on the part of cell-phone services, who buy and sell your personal data just as freely, but who also charge you hefty fees for the privilege.

Is Google about to bring down civilization as we know it? Frankly, the world has already ended so many times already over the last year or so, that this Apocalypse hardly seems worth getting out of bed for.

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