Google, Facebook, Privacy — And You

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Editor’s note: Guest author Keith Teare is General Partner at his incubator Archimedes Labs and CEO of newly funded He was a co-founder of TechCrunch.

Like millions of other people, I got an email from Google this morning. It was entitled “Changes to Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service”. The first sentence describes the intent of the changes as shortening 60 policies into one, and improving their readability.

Then there is a longer explanation captured in the graphic above.

The email goes on to assert that Google has not changed its privacy policy and will not sell our personal information to third parties – “Our privacy policies remain unchanged”. So what is going on here?

Facebook is the shiny object that Larry is focused on.

This is a week where Sheryl Sandberg – Chief Operating Officer at Facebook – spoke at Hubert Burda’s DLD conference in Munich and stated that we were in the middle of 3 trends. First, a trend “from anonymity to real identity”. Secondly, a trend from “wisdom of crowds to wisdom of friends” and third, a trend “from being receivers of information to broadcasters of information”. See the video below for the actual points she made. It was a thoughtful and at the same time a polemical speech, a speech with a strong point of view. In thinking about Google’s privacy policy changes it helps to listen to Sheryl’s remarks and reflect on the context.

Facebook is saying that the Internet as a pure information retrieval mechanism is dead. That the “readwrite” web that began as long ago as cheap web site hosting in 1998, has entirely replaced the read-only web. That the identifiable author has replaced the anonymous one. We are broadcasting and we are identifiable. That reading what friends say is now dominant in that world. Facebook envisages a future in which we all broadcast almost everything to almost everybody.

Google’s problem.

In that world, Google’s PageRank algorithm is seriously out of date. It promotes pages based on the number of links to it. Today, pages are no longer the unit of publishing. Far smaller items than a page dominate our senses. And those smaller messages are produced in huge quantity and in real time. So the signals that make something relevant have now changed. Facebook (and Twitter) have oodles of such signals. Google, until recently, had none.

Google’s solution.

The changes in Google’s terms and conditions are primarily focused on providing the company with an integrated set of data capable of feeding it signals about what is and is not relevant to each of us as we search the vast amount of data produced by the second. In that sense it is not only the right strategic move, it is a question of life and death. Google is doing a pivot, in order to remain relevant. It’s hard to disagree that this is necessary. It also seems clear that neither company is being intentionally “evil”. However, there is a dilemma for both Google and Facebook as we go down the “we are all broadcasters now” path. How can they gather the signals that feed insight without making decisions for the user about what is private, selectively shared or public?

We, the people!

There is a discernible and growing reaction against both Facebook’s new sharing paradigm and Google’s policy changes. As implicit sharing, or as Sheryl Sandberg calls it, broadcasting, replaces conscious sharing, many are growing disillusioned with Facebook taking liberties with their behavior. The same instinct is making many people focus on the assumed bad intent behind Google’s modifications. Broadcasting our “real identity” is not something anybody wants as a default, and many don’t want under any circumstances.

Privacy is becoming a product issue, not only a policy issue.

In the past privacy advocates on the Internet were primarily focused on privacy as a policy issue, and the privacy lobby was mainly made up of policy professionals. In the period since Facebook’s 2011 F8 conference, we have seen consumers begin to have strong opinions about the use of their data. The past week has accelerated this trend. Product managers now need to think long and hard about the assumptions built into their products and ensure they are serving consumers not just in words but in fact. Consumers are at a tipping pointy in not tolerating all-inclusive policy decisions by service providers that impact who sees their stuff.

Google and Facebook are between a rock and a hard place.

There is a big structural problem for both Google and Facebook as they contemplate the product consequences of consumer reactions to their product roadmap. In a centralized platform it is incredibly hard to create easy-to-understand controls that give each user the ability to control, at a granular level, what they share and who with. Grand policy shifts, like that which came out of F8 and which we are now seeing from Google, tend to assume all users are the same and will want the same thing.

In reality, users are more complex. I might want to save a private video to a personal storage space one moment, share something with a select group of friends another moment, and broadcast something to the world five minutes later. The web services infrastructure that both Facebook and Google are based on does not easily permit such fine grained control for users without also imposing serious effort. As we all know, that leads users to stick with the default settings most of the time.

So, despite good intent by the teams at both companies, one-size-fits-all decisions are the norm.

Mobile to the rescue?

Structural problems usually require structural solutions. What it seems consumers are asking for is a world in which we all know what we are sharing and who with — but where we don’t have to do a huge amount of work to achieve that. Google Circles seems to be a nod in this direction as are Facebook’s groups. But neither is really easy enough or sufficiently integrated into the flow of the products to really solve the problem. Both require a huge management overhead.

As I argued earlier this week in “Google, Look Out Behind You!“, the spread of smartphones may be part of the solution here. Hundreds of millions of consumers are now carrying around connected still and video cameras with lists of contacts in the address book, often already organized into meaningful groups. Decentralized decision-making is very easy when there are decentralized software clients under the unique control of each user. The ability to be private one moment, selectively share the next and then publicly broadcast a few minutes later is easy to achieve in this decentralized software architecture. And service providers can never become bad actors — simply because they do not own our information or the full social graph. The cloud becomes a means of delivering messages to the phones and the place where we store our media. But it’s not the place we need to trust to make decisions about what gets shared and who with.

Software can truly reflect the wishes of each human being in each moment in this world. It couldn’t be structurally more different from the past 10 years of centralized web services.

What’s Next?

Products will need to become increasingly more human as they become more mobile. Privacy can go away as an issue if that happens. All decisions about where data can travel will be able to be made by the individual, each time they produce data. We will all be able to be private, share selectively or choose to broadcast with relative ease.

We are moving to a period where it will be considered intrusive and unwelcome if our service providers have any point of view about our sharing behavior. “Just trust us” will not be necessary and certainly won’t cut it. Capturing moments in one’s life, with the choice of whether to share, and as importantly, who to share it with, will be in the hands of each individual. The service provider will merely execute the user’s wishes. If you think about it, it’s kind of like what email service providers do today. I can’t wait.