Google announced new privacy tools Tuesday intended to give people more control over how they’re being tracked, which is part of a broader effort by big tech companies to counter increasing scrutiny of their data collection practices. Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies have vast stores of user data and businesses built on using it for targeted advertising. These companies are attempting to reshape the privacy narrative from holding user data, to not giving it to third parties.
- Federal lawmakers looking at consumer privacy rights hear from lobbyists, social media companies, online platforms, and advertisers – the same corporate interests that benefit from the collection and sale of Internet data. Should they instead listen to consumer advocates and experts without ties to the tech industry?
- Google and other tech companies have traditionally put profits over privacy. How can tech businesses build products that include user information and ensure strong privacy protections?
- Some tech leaders propose a “privacy as paid service” business model in which companies like Facebook and Google create a second, premium service that charges for a privacy-friendly, ad-free user experience. Is maintaining personal control over our own data a human right that cannot be taken away?
- Princeton computer scientist Jonathan Mayer declared Google’s new feature for user control of cookies to be “unimpressive,” saying the scheme would be easy for advertisers to evade. “This is not privacy leadership — this is privacy theater.”
- In 2018, an Associated Press investigation found that Google continued storing phone location data even when users turned off a “location history” setting in Android.
- Gartner’s Werner Goertz said Google is responding with its own narrative, “It is trying to turn the conversation around and drive public discourse in a way that not only pacifies but also tries to get buy-in from consumers, to align them with its privacy strategy.”
CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off the company’s annual developer conference by noting “We think privacy is for everyone. We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” He reiterated the point in a New York Times Op-Ed, and highlighted the need for federal privacy rules.
Facebook is also championing privacy and Mark Zuckerberg had similar messaging at the company’s recent developer conference. “The future is private,” he said, and Facebook will focus on more intimate communications. He made the case in a recent Washington Post op-ed that also highlighted the need for federal privacy rules.
At the I/O conference, Google demonstrated its new “incognito mode” letting users browse YouTube and Google Maps and allowing auto-deletion of Google history after a specified time. It also makes it easier to find out what the company knows about you, among other new privacy features.
Overall, experts are not impressed. “They’re sort of marginal improvements,” said Jeremy Tillman, president of Ghostery, which provides ad-blocking and anti-tracking software. “They are not bad, but they almost seem like they’re designed to give the company a better messaging push instead of making wholesale improvements to user privacy.”
It appears that Google and Facebook are trying to reshape the privacy narrative. They have a vested interest in acquiring user data for targeted advertising purposes. They want consumers to view collecting user data as acceptable, as long as its not sold or given to third party entities.
On Wednesday, members of the Federal Trade Commission renewed calls at a congressional hearing to regulate big tech companies’ stewardship of user data. That was before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, where “lawmakers of both parties agreed” that such a law was required, The Wall Street Journal reported.