The Web Never Forgets. Should It?

3/9/12

By now most people are aware that Google changed its privacy policy. You’ve read articles on all sides of the spectrum: some say this is the worst thing ever; others claim it just doesn’t matter. And there’ll be even more since the EU has declared this new policy “illegal.” This new policy matters quite a bit, but not for the reasons you might suspect. It’s not anything in the new policy—most of this data sharing would have been possible under Google’s previous, and separate, 70 policies. Instead, what matters is that this policy rewrite is a clear signal to consumers about just where all this online tracking is going.

In a nutshell, Google is condensing the information that it collects across its 70-plus services into one detailed profile on its users. And even if you read the policies, it’s very broad and hard to understand any specific details. In fact this is what the EU appears to have the most issue with, that this policy is so broad as to have no specific meaning:

“Google makes it impossible to understand which purposes, personal data, recipients or access rights are relevant to the use of a specific service.”

This broadness is the problem. That’s what’s bothering people most. Google is now telling users that it’s combining data from different sources. Most specifically, data from very different types of activities are being combined. Most people understand that Google is looking at their mail while they’re in Gmail, or looking at their searches while they’re searching—it’s the combination of the tracking of all your activities in one place that causes this negative gut reaction.

Why? The reason is that people operate and behave differently in different contexts. Think of how different your online behavior is when you are essentially daydreaming by following a haphazard path through YouTube videos, compared to how you behave online when solving a problem at work.

This is something that people intuitively understand. It’s part of human nature. But there’s a mismatch between how we actually live our lives and how the massively recorded Web operates. As social animals we‘re uniquely adapted to adjusting our interactions with each other in these different contexts. There’s a gulf between what you say and how you behave when you are with friends, versus what you say when testifying before Congress. And that’s not a bad thing: there ought to be. If your behavior weren’t different in those situations, then those people wouldn’t be your friends.

That’s the disconnect: often people think they’re making “small talk” online when it’s actually the equivalent of a prime-time CNN interview. Human memory forgets; the Internet does not. This sort of data collection and storage … Next Page »

Andrew Sudbury is founder and chief technology officer of Abine, an online privacy company. Follow @

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