March 1, 2012Google, this is why privacy matters
I am content to admit that, over the course of my life, I have gotten many things wrong. I dyed my hair blonde as a teenager. I picked the wrong degree as an undergrad, leading to a costly second trip to uni. I went back to a girl who was hopelessly bad for me far more times than I should have. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me eight or more times, shame on me.
But I am not one to shy away from my mistakes.
I firmly believe that if we learn from our mistakes, we have gained, not lost.
Can you do the same?
Several years ago I publicly pledged that I would never be using Twitter. I was in good company.
The UK’s leading political blogger, Guido Fawkes, was also convinced Twitter was a fad and, moreover, spoke to a closed audience of just 24% of the population — Twitter was too selective and by focusing on Twitter you were effectively concentrating on a platform that would never reach much of your desired audience. If (as was true at the time) 90% of Twitter users were overwhelmingly left-wing and urban, how would you reach Daily Mail Man, White Van Man, etc, in the suburbs?
In actual fact the platform became universally adopted and I’m more than happy to eat my own words and follow up with a slice of humble pie.
Why I switched from Facebook to Twitter, and why it matters
Facebook was dead for me the day they forced everything on your profile to be linked to pages. List golfing in your list of activities? It links to the page.
I immediately deleted all data from my profile and now use it simply to keep in touch with people via private messaging. Twitter, on the other hand, has never claimed to be something it is not.
Twitter is a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin medium. You know it’s public. You know it’s always been public. You know it always will be public. The constantly shifting sands of privacy on Facebook became too much, so I left.
Yes, Facebook has millions and millions of users and is growing every day. But the way people use Facebook is different. People do not trust it. Facebook is the noisy “friend” you know is going to get drunk and spill your secrets one day. Facebook is the gossip you mind your tongue when you’re around.
Twitter is the office water cooler. You speak your mind, but you hold your tongue. It’s always been this way. Twitter won’t stab you in the back.
Until today, Google had the same level of trust. Will I stop using it? No. Will I use it in a different way? Yes. And that’s why it matters.
Today, Google are changing their privacy settings
Today, Google is making your life less private. Privacy changes mean Google is able to collect more data on you, store it for longer and, moreover, share it with more websites. The EU believes it violates privacy law.
It is without a doubt a bad thing for the consumer – a great thing for advertisers, in the short term at least.
I do not believe for one instant this is the beginning of the end for Google. All things being equal, they provide a fantastic service, for free, we all rely on.
But as Google stake their claim on more and more of our data, I find myself going to greater and greater lengths to hide it. I’ve ensured my web history is switched off. I clear my caches and clean cookies. I sign myself out of sites and I ensure I don’t get caught in web bubbles – a feedback loop where sites only show me search results they think I’ll agree with).
I am Spartacus
I’m just one man – and I don’t expect mass adoption of hyper-vigilant privacy settings. But all it would take would be a simple plugin to automate the process and I (and, based on the success of popular plugins such as Adblock, at least 10% of the web population) would install it.
If you are given a choice between a) losing your privacy and b) keeping it, you would naturally choose B.
When they change your privacy agreement, Google and Facebook and all the others are forcing you to choose “A” every time. Yes, it’s possible to roll back settings and circumvent changes, but most people simply don’t have the time or aren’t tech savvy enough to do this.
Any developer who comes up with an easy way to ensure total web privacy will gain mainstream traction very quickly. Adblock Plus, a service that’s never been advertised, has been downloaded by 20-30m users of Chrome and Firefox. So I’m not in a minority of one.
In short, don’t be evil, Google. If you try to collect more and more data from us, eventually you might end up collecting much less.
I won’t stop using the product. I’ll simply start using it differently. Join me.
*** Edit — a day after I wrote this blog post, Mozilla announced the launch of the free “collusion” add on which enables you to watch which companies are snooping on you as you browse. Great minds think alike… ***