Debunking Senator Al Franken On Google, The Internet & Privacy
I liked Al Franken as a comedian. I liked the idea of him becoming a US Senator. I definitely like the idea that he wants to defend Americans from potential privacy problems. But I don’t like that he sounds like an uneducated senator of old. Case in point: his recent speech to the American Bar Association attacking Google and raising worries about internet privacy. Let’s do some debunking.
Franken gave a speech last night to the American Bar Association’s anti-trust section, The Verge reports. The also have a copy of his speech here. I’ll go through the key parts pertaining to internet privacy, where Google plays the role as chief threat, with Facebook making some cameos.
But if you use Gmail – as I do – Google has a copy of every single email you’ve written on that service – as well as your friends’ replies.
True, unless you trash them. It’s not like Google prevents you from doing this.
Not mentioned is that if you use mail from Yahoo or Microsoft, they have a copy of every single email you have, unless you delete those, too. Was it too hard to squeeze the names of two more companies into that sound bite?
By the way, keeping all our email used to be a feature, Senator Franken. When Google launched Gmail with seemingly infinite space, the idea was that people shouldn’t have to trash all their email. After all, you might want to find something from the past.
Yahoo and Microsoft quickly moved to increase the space they allowed. In fact, checking just now, it’s hard to find what the limits are with Yahoo and Hotmail. That seems to be because they don’t really try to limit you.
Bottom line: it’s not a Google thing, so don’t talk about it as if it is.
Your Facebook Face Fingerprint
If you use Facebook – as I do – Facebook in all likelihood has a unique digital file of your face, one that can be as accurate as a fingerprint and that can be used to identify you in a photo of a large crowd.
So does my gym. So does Disneyland, from my annual pass. So does Costco. If we’re going to have rules about our images, can we apply those to the real world, too? Or not make them seem like they’re only a worry with tech companies?
Tracking Your Movements
And if you use a cell phone – as I do – your wireless carrier likely has records about your physical movements going back months, if not years.
Bless you. I talked about this as a concern in 2010, and glad you’re considering it:
Your carrier does have these records. If you want to view those, or delete those, unlike the situation with Facebook or Google or Foursquare, good luck. But the carriers rarely get singled out for this. Again, it was nice to see you mention this.
And you can’t impeach Google if it breaks its “Don’t be evil” campaign pledge.
Nice sound bite. In reality, you can. You can stop using them. If they violate what’s been promised in their policies, you can sue them. Well, a lawyer will do a class action suit and make a lot of money. Consumers will get a $1 coupon off AdWords.
What we’re seeing is that, just like Americans’ pocketbooks and access to information, their right to privacy can be a casualty of anti-competitive practices.
Now, Google isn’t just Google, the search engine. There’s Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube. And Google has always tracked your use of these services.
That was the basic deal. You got to use these amazing, innovative, helpful services – and, unless you knew where to find that opt-out link, Google got to use your use of these services to better target ads to you.
Where to begin? Senator Franken, you know that when I go to your own campaign web site, you “track” my use of your services? You do. Go check your web server logs. There will be a record of my IP address, probably a cookie you assigned to me, and you’ll know all the pages I’ve viewed.
Let’s have a reality check on tracking. All types of tracking happens on the interwebtubes, for all types of reasons.
Yes, You Can Use Google To Get Directions Fairly Anonymously
Meanwhile, that opt-out link you’re worried about? Do you really know what are you talking about?
I mean, you can use Google Maps without being logged into Google. Yep, it’s going to do some fairly anonymous tracking of your visit there. Potentially, it can use that visit to target you across the web, just like Yahoo, Microsoft and many other companies do.
The Deal Changers
Over time, though, the deal changed. In September 2010, Google told people it might use data from the content of your Gmail messages to better target the ads you’d see on other Google sites. So, if you emailed your friend in Minneapolis to tell him you were coming to visit next weekend, you might see an ad for a hotel in Minneapolis next time you went to Google Maps.
And this was bad because? But assuming you really didn’t like it — log out. Assuming you really, really didn’t like it, go use another service.
And this month, the deal changed again. Google now says it will share user data from any Google site with any other Google site. Every word you put in an email, every video you look for and at on YouTube, everywhere you explore on Google Maps, and everything you Google – it can all be used to help Google target ads to you on any of its sites.
Google actually said it “may” share, not that it “will” share. It also said that while it may do this to better target ads, it might also do it to make your use of its products better.
You know, sharing in the same way that Facebook and Microsoft both have privacy policies that allow them to share information between services? But no one gets upset about that, because for them, it was the status quo. For Google, it’s a campaign talking point.
If you’re upset about that sharing, be upset with all the tech companies. Don’t talk just about Google changing the deal. Talk about all the companies having this issue.
You Can Leave Google, Yes, You Can
But here’s where privacy becomes an antitrust issue.
If you don’t want your search results shared with other Google sites – if you don’t want some kind of super-profile being created for you based on everything you search, every site you surf, and every video you watch on YouTube – you will have to find a search engine that’s comparable to Google. Not easy.
Seriously, Senator Franken, who is writing this stuff for you? It’s super easy.
For one, go use Bing. It’s a totally great search engine.
Don’t like Bing? Go use Blekko. They’ve got some relevancy hurdles to climb, but you can use them.
Why Not Pay For Your Email?
If you want a free email service that doesn’t use your words to target ads to you, you’ll have to figure out how to port years and years of Gmail messages somewhere else, which is about as easy as developing your own free email service.
Or you could go sign-up for Hotmail, which as I look at it at the moment, really wants me to import all my Gmail messages into it. That’s pretty easy.
In your speech, you’ve got a great sound bite: “You are not their client. You are their product.” So why not pay $50 per year to be the client and turn off the ads? I’m pretty sure the US Constitution doesn’t require people to be entitled to free email.
By the way, that client/product quote sounds familiar. Kind of like, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold” from Andrew Lewis in 2010. I’m not saying you’re plagiarising him (I’m really not). He’s probably not even the first to have said it. Just pointing it out, in case you suddenly get turned into the author of this concept by some.
You Can Leave Facebook
You might not like that Facebook shares your political opinions with Politico, but are you really going to delete all the photos, all the posts, all the connections – the presence you’ve spent years establishing on the world’s dominant social network?
Yeah, if I’m really upset, I will. Or I’ll move on. You’ve heard of MySpace? Of Friendster? Or, um, Orkut? Facebook isn’t guaranteed to be the dominant social network (though I’ll admit, it’s got pretty good roots down now).
How About Real World Privacy?
The more dominant these companies become over the sectors in which they operate, the less incentive they have to respect your privacy.
Damn straight. Why, just the other day I was thinking about this company that has 20 years of my purchases on file, and how do I get all that deleted? Oh, wait, that was my credit card company. I don’t think I can.
Well, there’s this other company that knows all the things I’ve bought. How do I get all that deleted? Oh, wait, that was my grocery store. Where’s the dashboard for deleting purchases made with my loyalty card again?
At least Target can tell me if I’m pregnant, based on what it tracks about me. It’s not a technology company, so maybe you don’t think it falls under the new Senate subcommittee that you chair, Privacy, Technology & The Law.
But it should. Even if Target is tracking me in real stores, shouldn’t I have as much protection as you want me to have when I use the virtual stores of Google and Facebook?
Phew, But No Need To Ring Alarm Bells Yet
It isn’t time for alarm bells just yet. There are still some lines Google and Facebook aren’t planning to cross. Yet. Facebook isn’t about to sell lists of your friends to the highest bidder. And I’m pretty sure Google knows that, if it published everyone’s search history online, there would be some meaningful blowback.
But I mean, Facebook kind of does sell my friends. I can export all of them out to Yahoo and Bing, because Facebook and Yahoo and Bing all have deals. I can’t export them to Google, because, you know, they aren’t friends. Would you call that selling to the highest bidder?
When I go over to search on Bing, by default, all my Facebook friends are being used to personalize my search results. Oh, I can opt-out, but you know how hard that is. Since that’s part of a Bing-Facebook deal, is that a line that’s crossed?
How About Thoughtful Action, Not Loud Noises?
But wouldn’t we feel a lot more comfortable about that if we knew that market forces would act to stop such an egregious abuse of our privacy? And shouldn’t we be concerned that, as these companies that trade in your personal information keep getting bigger and bigger, they become less and less accountable?
No, I think we’d feel a lot more comfortable if our representatives crafted well considered laws to protect our privacy from companies on and off the internet.
And Senator Franken, let me end with this. It’s really hard to take the paranoia you seem to have over Google seriously when you’re also pitching small businesses to use Google:
Wait, did I perhaps not take a nuanced view there, not see that perhaps things aren’t all in black-and-white? If so, forgive me. I was just reading this rousing speech, and I guess I got carried away.
Senator Franken, your heart seems to be in the right place. Please do fight on the side of the consumers from big companies, because we need you in our corner. But be educated about it.