Google is totally committed to your privacy. At least, that's the message the company wants you to believe. In fact, yesterday Google ran three full-page ads in The Washington Post declaring that it takes your privacy seriously

The company clearly recognizes that it has a major image problem but the question is whether this is the best way to deal with that problem. Because, if you have to spend that kind of money telling people how committed you are to their privacy, you probably aren't. If you were, they'd already know--no ads needed.

Each of the ads ends with the line "Another way we keep your data private, safe, and secure." Of course, there's a reason the company chose The Washington Post, as opposed to, say, 25 major local papers across the country. The Post is the daily newspaper for policy-makers, legislators, and regulators, which is the only audience the company cares about convincing on this particular topic. 

Which tells you everything you need to know about who Google really cares about talking to. With the company facing increased scrutiny over its anti-competitive and privacy practices, Google wants to make sure everyone (in Washington) knows just how committed to privacy it really is.

Except, we already know that's not the case. Google can't really give you privacy online because that would defeat its entire business model, which depends on monetizing your personal information through targeted advertising.

Firefox, for example, wasn't having it. The company responded to the ads on Twitter by pointing out that it's one thing to talk about respecting user privacy but another to actually do something about it. 

Setting aside the irony of the world's largest digital advertising platform taking out a print ad in a daily newspaper, there are a few things Google could do to show people it actually cares about privacy.

Make privacy the default option.

Make all privacy-related protections automatic, and allow users the choice to opt-in before any personal information is used for any purpose. Instead of making a big deal about how many different ways Google provides to review what the company tracks and then delete it, just stop doing those things unless users explicitly say so. 

And don't bury those options deep in menus. Make it easy to find out exactly what information Google wants to use, how it plans to use it and protect it, and how you can decide whether you want to be a part. 

Stop using cookies.

Google has long resisted blocking third-party cookies used for tracking in its Chrome browser since that's how its business model works. Like Safari and Firefox, Google could design Chrome to prevent tracking and device fingerprinting and allow ad-blocking, but that would disadvantage its profit-generating advertising machine.

Google's argument is essentially that respecting your privacy in this way would  effectively ruin the Web. No, it would just force the company to find a new way to make money.

Stop monetizing everything we do online.

This would be a huge change since it requires a complete revision in the company's business model. And, considering how profitable it is to monetize you as a user, it won't ever happen--but it should.

For example, browsing history is useful to me as a user since sometimes I want to go back to a page I visited yesterday. But Google shouldn't have access to it, and shouldn't be using it to target me with ads. And when I log in to Gmail, for example, I shouldn't expect that Google is keeping track of everything I do online just because I'm logged in and it knows who I am.

The biggest problem is that Google created this monster. Email and browsers are free, largely because Google makes the most popular versions and provides them at no cost to users. But there's a huge price associated with "free," and no matter what Google says in an ad, that price is your privacy.

Published on: Sep 20, 2019
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