Escaping Google (and Facebook)
So, if you have a Google account, your email information, search history (and behaviour), Google+ activity, Google Calendar appointments, Google Map views and YouTube viewing habits will be combined into one database that Google can use to tailor advertising and search results.
In other words, Google won’t be collecting any more information about you than they already do. They’ll just be using it more efficiently.
Google says its new policy will benefit its users:
“Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too… But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with… well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. 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 the traffic is like that day.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it. Personalized search, relevant ads, meeting reminders. What’s wrong with that? Plenty, as Kevin Drum points out in Mother Jones: “It’s bad enough that Google can build up a massive and--if we’re honest, slightly scary--profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk.”
The problem is that it’s getting more and more difficult to avoid Google. Want to find directions? Google Maps. Want to arrange a meeting? Google Calendar. Share a document? Google Docs. Post or watch a video? YouTube.
I'm not just picking on Google. Facebook, which has had even more privacy issues than Google, is also becoming difficult to avoid. More and more websites have Facebook “recommend” buttons. Many groups, businesses and governments are setting up Facebook pages and events -- requiring you to join Facebook if you want to participate in their activities. Facebook's new Timeline feature and plans by Netflix, Spotify and others to share your viewing, listening and reading activities automatically are making Facebook even more omniscient and intrusive.
Another issue that’s getting increased attention is the so-called “filter bubble”. Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn, popularized it in his book of the same name. Pariser points out that Google results (and those from other search engines such as Yahoo and Bing) vary according to your previous searches, location and other factors.
For example, if you regularly click on links to rabble.ca and vancouverobserver.com articles, you will get a very different Google result for a “Stephen Harper” search than your friend who gravitates towards nationalpost.com and macleans.ca. While this may seem like a good thing, as Pariser notes, it makes it less likely you’ll be exposed to new ideas, and it can reinforce prejudices, intolerance and lack of understanding.
A final thing to worry about: Google (and Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft) all store your data in the U.S. That may be in violation of federal and provincial privacy and freedom of information legislation. My school, Simon Fraser University, recently sent a warning email to staff, faculty and students not to use Google Mail or similar services for this reason.
So what can be done? You can accept the bargain: you exchange your personal data for the services (search, mail, videos, news) provided by Google, Facebook and others. Or you can fight back in various ways. Limit what you say online, resist the urge to “like” or “recommend” things on third-party sites, set your privacy settings to the level you feel comfortable with. You can even “pause” Google’s tracking of your web history. You can object when a public organization requires you to sign into Facebook to participate, or join a Google group.
And there are alternatives, even if they’re not quite as sophisticated as the Google products. Vimeo for videos. Mapquest or OpenStreetMap for directions. But what about search? In a society where "google" is synonymous with "search for", is there an alternative?
Several, as a matter of fact. Though the major players like Yahoo and Bing can be just as zealous as Google in their filtering and tracking, there are less intrusive alternatives, such as scroogle and DuckDuckGo.
It’s a little slower than Google, and the results won’t be personalized or filtered, but I think that’s a good thing. I may have to wait a few seconds longer and scan a few more items in the list of search results, but that’s a small price to pay for privacy.
For more ways to kick the Google habit, check out these two sites: