Friday, 10 February 2012

Review: Google Good to Know

Good To Know is is Google's latest attempt to educate and inform the Internet-using public about privacy and on-line security. Specifically, Good To Know aims to inform users of the tools they can use to control how their data is used across Google's many services.

The question is, do we look on this as genuine public service content or as a thinly disguised Public Relations puff-piece with more spin than the Magic Roundabout? Is this act of proactive public reassurance just to pre-empt the kinds of privacy lawsuits Facebook is fighting?

You could that argue Google has done more to erode on-line privacy and security - with the exception of Facebook - than perhaps any other company in the web space. After the hideous gaffe of the failed Google Buzz social service, which less than two years ago exposed users' Gmail contacts without  permission, then-CEO Eric Schmidt essentially told the world “privacy is dead, get over it.”  Then the Google Street View cars unintentionally collected 600GB of users' browsing information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks.

We've said before on these pages, "if you're not paying for the product, then you are the product."  Google's revenue model is predominantly advertising; it's not a charitable foundation. As Google has itself stated, "the more you use the web, the more money we make."

The business model relies on collecting user information to sell to advertisers and third parties. Helping users maintain their accounts securely, to avoid abuse and make sure that the valuable information they collect is accurate is largely in its' own interest.

Spot the conflict of interest when it comes to telling users how to maintain their privacy. The less information Google collects about users and their activities, the less valuable is that information to advertisers. Would it rather you share or be safe?

What's Good to Know?
Good to Know aims to educate the public about on-line privacy and security, in a collection of easy-reading, jargon-free pages with links to further resources.

Re-assuring phrases are pushed to the fore. The Your Data > Advertising page explains;
"Throughout this process we don’t store your name or keep any personal information about you. We just recognize the number stored in your browser, and show ads related to the interest categories associated with your cookie (so we’re recognizing your browser, not you)... We don’t show ads based on sensitive information or interests, like race, religion, sexual orientation, health, or sensitive financial categories."

Sounds good so far, but as various on-line investigators can testify, it only takes a handful of individual Google searches linked together to piece together a whole lot more than that.

Good To Know breaks down into four categories:

  • Stay Safe On-line
  • Your Data On The Web
  • Your Data on Google
  • Manage Your Data
Topics break down into further information and links to tools and policies. Some sections contain embedded video to explain various topics. It has to be said all of the video is in bite-sized chunks, no doubt to be advertising friendly and stand-alone. Some of it pre-dates Good to Know. There is a section describing Google's own Data Liberation Front, an internal team created with the intention of engineering the importing data and export of data from any Google service. The idea, under Google's ethical banner "don't be evil" allow users the freedom to come and go without fear of vendor lock-in as happens with so much personal and corporate data. From the Data Liberation Front website, you should be able to choose any service and find receive clear instructions on how to extract and erase your data from Google's servers.

The generic information about on-line security is sound but the conflict of interest bubbles just below the surface of the entire Good to Know campaign. The rest of the campaign is either directed at making users feel comfortable sharing information with Google, is is pushing its' own products and services without mentioning alternatives. For example Google Chrome is held up as the paragon of safe web browsers, with no mention of Firefox, Safari or newer versions of Internet Explorer. It's hardly an unbiased recommendation from the makers of Chrome, but is clearly exploiting people's immense trust in the brand name of Google.

The next issue is, Good to Know is already massive. How many casual users are going to get through this to the right section  in which they're interested? Big, friendly grade-school cartoons help to dress down the marketing speak, but it's hard to ignore that all the text sounds like it was written by the same team that promotes Dolphin-friendly tuna products.

As a generic tool for education on Internet privacy, it is a good starting point. There's nothing strikingly original, but at least you have everything here in one place. Unfortunately in tone and content, it's hardly unbiased and you can't put aside the suspicion of ulterior motives. RC