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The other day I read that if you get a service for free you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.
For several weeks the Internet’s most venerable and ubiquitous search service has been promoting public acceptance of a new and more integrated privacy and data sharing policy. The parallel between how Google has approached this change, and to the degree to which the change is beneficial to Google and potentially damaging to users both as individuals and as a group, has the look and feel of credit card lenders filching easy money from their unsuspecting and largely uninformed users.
Unlike the unilateral contract term changes foisted upon credit card holders, the Google announcement has spawned some grumbling among users and denouncement by Google critics. For some, Google’s new policy has the quality of usury — at least in the sense that banks make money by charging interest renting liquidity while search service operators make money by renting user eye-time to advertisers.
The result, from what we have read, is that Google traded some of its benign image and ethical credibility in exchange for enhancing its long-range economic prospects. But Google’s gain came at some cost, due in part, to having decided to make the transition very public while concealing policy consequences for uninformed users by means of what some have described as weasel wording, obfuscatory terminology and even misdirection.
One way of speaking more clearly about the issues is to strip the rhetoric, misdirection and obfuscatory foreplay in favor of enhanced understandability. Here’s what a clearer statement of the issues might look like:
When Google started it understood the Internet was owned by the user community. What Google is telling users through their assertion of providential ownership of users’ private information is that Google now owns the Internet. We’re big. You’re small. You pay.
Nothing says I own you quite as clearly as a unilateral, non-negotiated change in contract terms. Every credit card holder knows what it feels like when terms are changed at the whim of one, and only one party to an agreement absent either arms-length negotiation or any meaningful opportunity to opt-out.
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One pays for Google search result services by tolerating advertising, paid placements and possibly undocumented adjustment to placement positions.
In the beginning search engines were optional as were cell phones, credit cards and other new products or services during their infancy.
There appears to be some truth to allegations that Google takes advantage of user ignorance concerning the quality or fairness of their unpublished placement policies. To the degree that such allegations have merit, it might be fair to tag Google for being cunning, or even duplicitous — both of which fall far short of rape and pillage.
Google, for all of its immense power and global reach, has never been benign, nor has it openly behaved in ways damaging to its users.
Even so, the company’s detractors, critics and competitors are not entirely wrong in their concerns and worries when it comes to Google’s strategic move to capitalize upon and monetize information which it garners from its users absent a clear statement of intent, ramifications, risks of disclosure or other unwanted or unstated consequences.
Nor, as Mark Schreiber has so clearly argued, legitimate opportunity to opt out, or so much as negotiate.
Search services and technologies have become necessities.
As search service companies become bigger and bigger opting out may become similar to someone who decides not to drive, or use electricity.
A kind of postmodern Amish.
In today’s competitive Internet marketplace opting out is an illusion. Every bit as much as it is with your friendly credit card issuer. And for most of the same reasons — an uneven playing field that favors the powerful at the expense of the weak and aggressive asset management strategies behave as if government — i.e. freely wielding the power to tax at will.
The competitive Internet drives today’s 3 year olds toward social media. All the better to condition young and accepting minds to accept whatever they get for free — absent either disclosure or understanding that there is no free lunch. Never, was, never will be.
Google is a maturing company far from its collegiate roots. Its once lofty notion of Do No Evil was never realistic — for had Google’s intrusive search strategy not been successful at exploiting Yahoo’s apply for listing vulnerability the budding company’s thoughts of doing good in preference to bad would not have mattered.
Public corporations are secular institutions whose purpose is to optimize economic rewards at whatever expense is consistent with survival. Absent restraint, or regulation, public corporations become uninhibited, if not predatory.
What happened to Google was what happened to the world’s largest financial institutions and banks when they assumed having the power to do wrong justified doing so.