Google recently generated a flurry of coverage about its supposed privacy pivot, including an op-ed in The New York Times by chief executive Sundar Pichai. “We feel privileged that billions of people trust products like Search, Chrome, Maps, and Android to help them every day,” Pichai wrote.
It’s not that we necessarily trust Google. It’s that, as a near monopoly, we have no choice. In fact, the crisis of trust — after a year of data breaches and congressional appearances — has led all the major tech companies to launch public relations campaigns around privacy.
This is a smokescreen to satisfy regulators and pacify consumers while continuing their data exploitation activities. While some of the changes they have made are positive, they have no intention to give up their lucrative business model of ads powered by surveillance, which is fundamentally at odds with privacy.
There was a time when we had meaningful privacy on the Internet. In the early days, dot-com barons weren’t interested in surveillance and data mining. The business model was subscriptions, led by companies like America Online, which dominated the space.
As more users moved away from proprietary portals like America Online toward the open Internet, browsers and search replaced subscriber services as the gateway to the web. Clicks and user data seeded the beginnings of what is now called surveillance capitalism.
By the end of the decade, a science project at Stanford was on pace to supplant “search” as a verb. Ironically, Google is an ad-funded doppelganger of the subscriber services it replaced. Instead of charging users for access, it simply spies on their online activity, location history, and behaviors to give advertisers (their true customers) unprecedented power to manipulate consumer behavior.
Today, the consequences of this shift are challenging our democracies and unraveling our sense of truth. Monopolistic attention merchants wield more power than anyone in human history. For instance, in 2017, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg single-handedly reduced video viewership by 50 million hours per day, like turning a dial.
“Google’s fake privacy campaign is a smokescreen to satisfy regulators and pacify consumers while continuing their data exploitation activities.”
After the backlash of the last year, with threats of new US privacy laws and anti-trust actions, we are now being told that privacy was actually a core value of these companies all along. “Data minimization is an important privacy principle for us,” writes Pichai (whose company keeps detailed profiles on billions of people). Google and Facebook have promised to give users back some control, with simplified privacy settings and features like incognito mode on more apps.
However, even as they publicly express support for more privacy, big tech companies have heavily lobbied legislators to write rules that serve their bottom lines, not users’ rights. Google, despite Pichai writing that “Europe raised the bar for privacy laws around the world when it enacted the General Data Protection Regulation,” is vigorously contesting the GDPR and the substantial fines the European Union has levied against it.
Zuckerberg played at a similar game in his announcement, saying, “I believe working towards implementing end-to-end encryption for all private communications is the right thing to do,” but simultaneously working to combine metadata on contacts, conversations, and payments from all its services to better track and spy on users, much to the ire of European privacy regulators. That Facebook is aware of the duplicity of its privacy shift is obvious from the announcement on a recent shareholders call that it had set aside $5 billion for future FTC privacy violation fines.
If Google were truly serious about privacy, it could easily announce it would no longer retain search histories to build profiles on all its users, or that it would use end-to-end encryption to avoid collecting user data. If a startup search engine like DuckDuckGo or ProtonMail can do it profitably with tens of millions of users, so can Google.
We are being manipulated, and we need better choices. Our privacy rights should not be reduced to scraps that tech titans throw at us (wrapped in a PR campaign) whenever users start to complain. (Learn why Gmail confidential mode is not secure or private.) Privacy should be a core value that is guaranteed not only through a more ethical business model, but through the mathematical certainty of strong encryption.