Back to square one on Privacy

Google’s decision to unify its 60-odd separate privacy policies into one über, so-called “simplified” policy has touched a few nerves. The Washington Post did a poll of it’s readers, and of the 14,000 odd who took the poll, a whopping 65% said that they would cancel their Google accounts because of the privacy changes.

Under Google’s new privacy policy, which goes into effect on March 1st, users will NOT be able to opt out of having their data shared across all the Google products and services that the user may use. As a result Google will be able to show better targeted advertisements to users, and promises users a “simpler, more intuitive Google experience”, whatever that means.

After reading through Google’s blog and the updated privacy policy, here are a few things that have gone awry here, that have caused yet another privacy-related backlash.

1. Many users, myself included, most likely believed that Google was already sharing their data across its products and services.

We just did not know how exactly it was doing it, but we figured that there were some crazy algorithms already working behind the scenes to connect all the dots from our “Google experience” on YouTube, Search, Maps, Google+, Gmail, etc. We also did not quite know how this was benefitting us users, but that did not stop us from using the different Google services as and when we needed to. We weren’t really bothered that somehow we were not using Google in a “simpler, more intuitive” way. So Google’s explanation here makes it look like they are just now catching up with what it’s users already expected it to do.

2. Google takes pains to explain what this simple, intuitive experience would feel like.

“We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar, and an understanding of what traffic is like on that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate because you’ve typed them before.”

In my opinion, these examples are pretty lame. They are even insulting to my cognitive abilities. These are not high-order scenarios for which one would be willing to lose control over privacy. Something like this may be at least a more reasonable scenario. Say a friend of yours shared a video on YouTube about a movie trailer. As you watched that trailer, Google could tell you the appropriate show times of two theaters close to your location, based upon the free time in your Google calendar over the next few days. Make the examples meaningful, exciting, that create some new possibilities, rather than telling someone you are going to be late for a meeting, or creating a better spell checker. Integration should seamlessly enable scenarios that are not ordinarily possible without friction.

3. Google wants to make search better, so that when you type in “Jaguar”, based on your past history, it would know whether you are searching for the car or the animal. Or if you are searching for restaurants in Munich, in addition to results from the web, it would show photos and posts that other people have shared.

The problem with search results today is that there is way too much information. Most people do not go beyond the first page of search results. By crowding the results with yet more information, that one has presumably already seen in photos and posts, it is only going to compound the “drinking from a fire hose” problem.

This almost seems like Google has decided that the only way to help us make our way out of the data we receive today is to give us yet more data, with the hope that something will stick. I don’t know about you but when I search for “Jaguar”, I can easily decide right on the first page which results are relevant. Again this example is insulting to my cognitive abilities.

Perhaps a way to make search better is to change the search paradigm entirely. Instead of searching for nouns as we do most of the times today, the paradigm should shift to verbs, so that we can get to the heart of what we want to do, instead of simply know.

4. Google+, and also Facebook, have built privacy into the sharing fabric by allowing us to create Circles or Groups, and that is fine. In reality, we cannot just classify people into one circle or group and leave it at that. Many times I have felt the need to share something with people who are in different groups or circles. But I am willing to concede that those capabilities are a good start.

There seems to be too much emphasis on the circles of trust the user can create and maintain, but not enough on the trust that the companies need to establish with users. Telling users “it’s my way or the highway” and that you can take your data somewhere else if you disagree runs contrary to “focus on the user”, which happens to be one of Google’s guiding principles, on paper albeit.

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