How far should Google go when it comes to profiting from the massive amounts of personal data they posses? That’s the question that is discussed in a confidential (not anymore) “vision statement” that was put together in 2008 by Aitan Weinberg, who is now a senior product manager.
The Wall Street Journal got their hands on the document and they say that it is a blueprint for turning Google into the biggest clearninghouse for what most would consider to be private data.
“Google is pushing into uncharted privacy territory for the company. Until recently, it refrained from aggressively cashing in on its own data about Internet users, fearing a backlash. But the rapid emergence of scrappy rivals who track people’s online activities and sell that data, along with Facebook Inc.’s growth, is forcing a shift.”
Some of the ideas on the table include mining Gmail for information, building a data buy / sell program and allowing users to block ads for a price.
Sources told The Wall Street Journal that the document was just about brainstorming so it was never presented to execs, but still, some of the ideas in the report have already gone into effect. One such item is Google’s tracking program that allows them to tailor ads to users based on the websites they’ve visited.
When you talk about selling data, you’re talking about privacy and the lack thereof. By accessing a website or program on the web, are you automatically signing away your rights to any info you leave behind? The laws haven’t been keeping up with the technology so Google is basically regulating themselves. Right now, they’re still leaning toward protecting the privacy of their users but the monetary rewards of sharing what they know must be very tempting. According to the WSJ article, Google is prepared to justify their actions.
“The founders believe they are improving the Internet user’s experience, said Alma Whitten, who leads Google’s privacy engineering, in a June interview. “What’s good for the consumer is good for the advertiser.”
On some level, that’s true. Advertisers want highly targeted ads based on demographics and interests. Users benefit from ads that interest them, so there is a symbiotic relationship. But how much are you willing to give up in order to get a targeted response. Do you really want advertisers to know where your kids go to school, what medical problems you have or if you’re planning a divorce? Google could have all this data if they scan gmail, Google group responses or records put on Google Docs.
Google says don’t worry:
“Google doesn’t mix those separate pots of personal data. For instance, it doesn’t use data gleaned from a person’s Gmail account to target ads to that person elsewhere online. Google’s computers do, however, scan Gmail messages to place contextual ads next to the emails themselves. Google also says much of its data can’t be tied to a person by name.”
And why don’t I feel reassured? Right now, the only thing keeping Google from becoming a deep data sales rep is their own fear. Execs worry that crossing the privacy line will backfire and result in a loss of business.
Google is number one in many areas, but they lag behind Yahoo in display-ad revenue and Facebook is becoming a major contender for the crown. Execs know that they’re going to have to start making some hot button decisions if they want to keep up the revenue stream. According to the document, no decisions would be made ”without strong consideration of privacy, legal and industry best practices in mind.”
Or to put it more bluntly, they need to find a way to sell data to advertisers without the feeling of “creepiness” you get when seeing a tightly targeted ad.
What do you think? Has Google been overly cautious in regard to the data they possess? The article mentions that Google execs feel they are held to a higher standard than other companies. Is that true? Does great power come with great responsibility? We’d like to hear your thoughts.