Google: Don’t be creepy

This past week Apple released Safari 5, which features a non-distracting, ad-blocking reader mode and an overdue but most-welcome support for extensions. Safari 5 also offers a choice of search engines, so although I have no Microsoft software installed on my computer, I have set my default search engine to Bing in protest, as a follow-up to my Google as Big Brother post.

In Google as Big Brother, I wrote that I oppose the Google book settlement, that I support litigation to investigate Google’s wi-fi data harvesting from private networks, and that I was astonished at Google’s lack of class, during their recent developers conference, toward Apple as a competitor.

Google’s mantra, “Don’t be evil,” does not mesh well with the behavior of a company whose primary business is targeted advertising. If so, what motto should they adopt? One motto that comes readily to mind is “Stop being creepy.” This strikes me as particularly apt, after reading a thought-provoking analysis by David Barnard, “Anti-Competitive AND Potentially Creepy.” Google and other analytics companies harvest astonishing quantities of information about users of the iPhone (now iOS) platform, and Apple is taking a lot of heat for recent steps to limit these activities and protect user privacy. Barnard explains,

“If Apple didn’t do this, a year from now a self-conscious woman would look down at her phone and see an ad promoting weightloss products to overweight 41 year old women with thinning blond hair who live in a blue house and drive a black Ford Taurus.”

Who can we trust in this hyper-connected digital environment? Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, once asked a skeptic whether he would rather have governments in control of the information Google amasses. Until recently, I think most people trusted Google more than any government, but to place trust in an ad company is naive. (Google is not Darrin Stephens.) Barnard’s killer point is this:

“And I trust Apple in that regard a hell of a lot more than I trust Google, Facebook, etc. The thing is, Apple is a hardware company, that’s where they have and will continue to make their money. Google, Facebook, and others trade in information. The more detailed and specific, the more valuable that information. For Apple, the better the overall experience of the device, the more valuable that device becomes. They can throttle ad targeting and the specificity of 3rd party analytics according to the taste of users.”

There’s much more in Barnard’s superb essay.

One could not hope for a better illustration of the contrasting privacy policies of Apple and Google than the All Things Digital interview with Steve Jobs on June 7. 24 minutes into this 90-minute conversation, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher grill Jobs about Google. Anyone expecting a combative response from Jobs, similar to the warfare rhetoric voiced by Google executives at their developer conference, would have been disappointed. Jobs demonstrated maturity and class, calmly stating that “just because we’re competing with somebody doesn’t mean we have to be rude” (30 min).

The interview turned to privacy at the 1 hr 9 min mark, when Mossberg noted recent controversies involving Facebook and Google Buzz. Mossberg’s reference to Google’s unauthorized wi fi collection as “inadvertent” drew a laugh from the audience. Jobs remarks over the next several minutes are very interesting, and his animated expression reflects obvious passion for the principles involved. He insisted that Silicon valley is not monolithic in its respect for privacy (or lack thereof), and that Apple thinks different in taking privacy extremely seriously. For example, other mobile platforms do not require applications to ask user permission before obtaining location data. Yet in the iOS, asking permission is not just a rule, because developers might not follow that rule. Rather, apps call location services and the system itself puts up a panel for user approval to ensure that users always understand what an app is doing. Without a curated App Store, this protection of privacy would not be possible. (Similarly, Apple will also curate the distribution of Safari extensions.) Indeed, Jobs emphasized that many of the apps that are rejected from the App Store are refused because they would:

“take your personal data and suck it up into the cloud.” “We worry about stuff like this.” “Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain English, and repeatedly. That’s what it means.” “Some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them, if they get tired of you asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data. That’s what we think.”

After a brief but poignant affirmation that life is fragile, the discussion turned back to privacy at 1:13. A questioner from the audience asked Jobs whether Apple’s increasing restrictions upon data harvesting suggests that Apple wants to exclusively own the analytics business. Jobs explained that the context for these restrictions arose from Apple’s naiveté about the power of these analytical methods. One day we read in the paper, Jobs recounted, that an analytics firm named Flurry had detected new iPad and tablet devices on the Cupertino campus. Certain apps were sending Flurry user information, including location and device identifiers. “So we said ‘No. We’re not going to allow this. It’s violating our privacy policies, and it’s pissing us off…” So the new restrictions allow analytics solely for the purpose of advertising. The questioner replied that there are other valid uses of user data, such as providing feedback to enable the developer to improve the app. Jobs, quite animated, responded:

“There’s no excuse for them not asking the customer whether it’s appropriate to send that personal, private data to an analytics firm, which they were not doing. And secondly, after we calm down from being pissed off, then we’re willing to talk to some of these analytics firms… but it’s not today!”

In contrast, choosing a Google phone over an iPhone is like turning off all of one’s Facebook privacy settings.

Watch the entire, illuminating interview at the All Things Digital website.

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3 Responses to Google: Don’t be creepy

  1. Kerry Magruder says:

    Eric Schmidt: “With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches,” he said. “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less now what you’re thinking about.”

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