People love Google. It’s so useful! You can just type a few words into the search engine and then find loads of relevant websites—all for free. It’s not exactly free, of course. Google, like Facebook, offers free online services in exchange for the privilege to serve its users targeted ads. So, unless you’re using some anonymity tool or tweaking your settings, Google logs the data from every search you make and links it to you. The company is perhaps a few keystrokes away from a privacy scandal of its own. Why aren’t we freaking out about this?
Lawmakers are thinking about it. Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune recently said that he’s thinking about conducting another hearing on privacy and the internet as a follow up to the one Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endured. Thune specifically suggested that Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, should speak to his committee about the ways Google uses data. And although Facebook’s mistreatment of such data has garnered more headlines lately, learning more about what Google does could be especially enlightening, given the company’s size and scope. Google probably knows more about you than you think.
In many cases, the advertising business model Google and Facebook have used to dominate the web is the only way the world could enjoy what makes online so handy and fun. But the cost of trading your data for a useful service, we’ve learned, amounts to a delicate balance. You’re surrendering your data in exchange for a service, while also trusting that the company doesn’t lose your data or leave it vulnerable to unwanted outside parties. This point of trust is essential. Facebook is the cardinal example of how it fails, and as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed, rendering yourself prey to the social network’s privacy-killing tendencies can also endanger your friends’ privacy, as well.
From many points of view, Google’s treatment of user privacy seems different. For one, Google has been celebrated in Europe for being proactive about protecting users’ privacy. It seems like Google’s offering an inherently private service, too. When you Google stuff, it’s just you Googling. It’s easy to forget that you’ve been Googling stuff since the late 90s, giving the company many years worth of data from your internet history (unless, of course, you proactively wipe the data). It’s also easy to overlook the extent to which Google’s other products—namely Gmail, Chrome, YouTube, and Android—also keep tabs on your online activity as well as your life in the physical world. The data collection on non-search-related platforms seems somehow less direct. You’re not usually inputting queries, after all. You’re just doing useful Google stuff. And so, because your individual behaviour on the site and its properties feel so individual, it seems like your privacy is safe and secure.
This isn’t necessarily the case. For more than a decade, Google scanned the contents of Gmail users’ messages and served ads based on the contents. The company stopped doing this for ad purposes last year, though it did keep scanning to spot spam or phishing emails. Nevertheless, the practice signalled to users that their Google data was not precious or secret. It was a resource for Google for a long time, and the company continues to collect user data on all of its platforms, including YouTube and Android—and Google does sell ads based on some of this data. By the way, the company’s ad revenue grew by 21 percent last year.
All that said, folks largely like Google more than Facebook. An Axios survey conducted by SurveyMonkey found that a majority of people—65 percent—had a favourable view of Google compared to just 5 percent of people who viewed Facebook favourably. An informal survey like this shouldn’t be read as gospel, but the split is wide enough that one could easily see how Google seems less prone to freakout than Facebook. Google, a more data-focused company, has cemented itself as a clean and essential utility in a way that Facebook, a social network, never could.
This idea that Google is a data service rather than a social network hints at why its data-tinkering feels less scary than Facebook’s. Facebook is a place where people go to broadcast their personal information and to publish their feelings. Google gives the outward appearance of being just a little white box that delivers answers. Facebook wants to know all about you, and, over the years, its various scandals have shown that it’s not so great at protecting your information.
It doesn’t help that Mark Zuckerberg has publicly denounced the right to privacy. In 2010, the Facebook founder famously proclaimed that the age of privacy had ended, and even in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, his company is making moves to avoid stricter privacy laws in order to mine more data from over 1.5 billion of its 2.1 billion users. Furthermore, what made that scandal so scandalous was the fact that the company allowed third parties not only to exploit the data of willing users but also that of their friends. So even if a small number of people give up their personal data to a third party, Facebook’s design could let loose the data of tens of millions of people—nearly 90 million in the case of the Cambridge Analytica situation. Facebook has since limited the amount of information an app can collect, but it’s still unclear how much user data seeped out into the open when permissions were more generous.
Google has a lot of users, too. If you considered that everyone with a Gmail account is connected to other Google users in some way, it’s not hard to imagine what a shitshow would await the world if some major data breach occurred. There have been instances of stolen Gmail credentials in the past, but nothing close to the Cambridge Analytica scandal has happened to Google. Google has not yet been implicated in swaying American presidential elections in the way that Facebook has, and its executives have not yet been grilled by American lawmakers in the way that Mark Zuckerberg has.
Why is this? The answer seems simple. It just hasn’t happened, yet. Congressional testimonies typically follow big scandals or massive public outrage. Google just hasn’t endured that, so far. Why aren’t we angry at Google? Because, although it controls more than we ever might know, Google seems to be doing a pretty good job at keeping our data secure. Seeming to do something isn’t the same as doing it, though. It might just be a matter of time before Google goes the way of Facebook.