You Call That Evil?

There’s a nice little insider quarrel going on over Google’s just-announced privacy policy changes. A number of sites and commentators have let their fingers jump up mechanically in accusatory fashion. Google, caught red-handed being evil!

Here, I think, is a time when the word “bias” is actually warranted. Everyone wants so badly for Google to do something truly evil (instead of just questionable or inconvenient) that their perceptions of Google actions are actually being affected. Casting events systematically in a non-objective light is the exhibition of bias, and the continual presentation of policies one disagrees with as evidence of “evil” seems to fall under that category.

Google going evil has become the Godwin’s Law of tech commentary.

What specifically is evil about this particular action? What is happening is a consolidation of privacy policies across most of the services Google offers. Other companies and services do this already rather than maintain separate documents, agreements, and records across several related sites. This way there is a single privacy policy that applies across Google products. That is a good thing: it’s simpler for users to understand, they don’t have to sign multiple documents, they know that certain things are and aren’t private across multiple services, and now something like removing demographic data from yourself applies universally, not just on one service. Why shouldn’t it be that way?

To be fair, compartmentalizing services is something that some users prefer. Just last week I lamented the loss of compartmentability when Google changed its account signup process to require new Gmail and G+ accounts. Forcing someone to use a service is bad. But creating policy consistency and cross-talk between related services doesn’t strike me as such. You already had Google-wide preferences. Now you have more.

What about the ad targeting? Now, it is whispered, you could search for basketball tickets and then find that the ads on Gmail or YouTube reflect that history! Your ad profile is now tied to your Google account, not specific site accounts, in other words. Again, it is just assumed people agree this is evil. Why should they? Where is the harm? If anything, it simplifies things and again makes it more intelligible to the average user what Google is tracking. Hint: everything, just like before.

More evil is prophesied by a wild-sounding privacy advocate quoted in the Washington Post: “There is no way anyone expected this. There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.” You can almost see the froth on his lips.

What about not being able to opt out? What is it people want to opt out of exactly? The new, simplified privacy policy? What would you opt into instead — the older policy? Being tracked per-site instead of by account? Perhaps you would you like to opt into pre-Timeline Facebook as well? Maybe you’d like to opt out of Apple’s restrictions on selling your iBooks? How, specifically, are people being harmed by the new policy, and in what way can they be demonstrated to have less privacy than under the old system, under which the exact same data and behaviors were recorded, analyzed, and packaged? Google is not collecting more information, they are not selling new information, they are not changing anything but the level at which the data is collated before you are anonymized into an ad group (baseball, travel, Boston, gadgets) and exposed to ads targeted to your general type of consumer.

And of course, you can opt out of the part worth opting out of:

The worst one can say about this change is that it causes yet more overlap between Google services that people may not have requested. If you call that evil, you’ve forgotten what evil looks like.