Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Google's Personalized Search: Are We Really in Control?

The esteemed Peter Fleischer, Global Privacy Counsel, posted this little nugget on the Google blog which, obviously, sparked my interest in his opinion piece for the Financial Times. Ignoring a few grammatical errors and quite a few spacing issues (we hope that have more to do with FT than Mr. Fleischer), the article does a fairly good job of quietly dosing the fire of privacy concerns that have arisen since Google's bid to acquire DoubleClick (for another ridiculous amount of money)and its change in its data retention policy.

Mr. Fleischer states that "the responsible way to handle this privacy issue is to ask users if they want to opt in to the service." He goes on to explain that when you open a Google account, you are giving your consent to Google Personalized Search, or "opting in" to the service. And just like email marketing campaigns, you can still "opt out." The point, however, is that the user is in control, which for some sounds a little odd coming from a company like Google. Control, by its nature, is a facade. No one is really "in control," some just manipulate better than others so the illusion of control seems all the more real.

I always think of that scene from "Jurassic Park," where Hammond and Ellie are sitting at a long table, trying to eat up the melting ice cream, and Hammond talks about the next time, "when we have control," to which Ellie points out "but we never have control." Giving the pace of technology, you have to pause for a moment and ask, do we really have control over our search history?

Google certainly wants to make that facade look real. After all, you can turn off the "Search History" function. You don't even need to "pause" it, just use the "Remove all" or "Delete all" function and once it erases your search history, it automatically pauses the service so no more search data can be found. But is it really gone? Has it really been erased?

If you're spent anytime in the online world, you know things aren't ever really "erased." Things still exist, somewhere. And some day, a curious, enterprising individual for reasons unknown, may want to find that information that you believed had been erased. Deleted. You remember deleting your search history, pausing the function and sleeping easier. After all, Google puts your in control of your search history, right?

On a final note, a little bit of humor found on Digg: "Google in 20 years".

1 comment:

michaelzimmer said...

Following up on your reaction, I find Fleischer's comments on privacy and "user control" dangerously misleading, as I try to explain here.