Google: Trust, Choice, and Privacy
Gus Meuli, Caitlin Finn
What is Privacy?
Privacy is very difficult to define and there are many different views of privacy. Many people speak of privacy as something to be valued and that it allows people to “be free from interference by others.” 3 Over the years there continues to be a debate about what privacy means, and “initially, privacy was understood in terms of freedom from (physical) intrusion. Later it became associated with freedom from interference into one’s personal affairs. Most recently, privacy has come to involve access to and control of personal information.” 4
Privacy can be broken down into three categories: accessibility privacy, decisional privacy and informational privacy. The type of privacy that is most relevant to Google is informational privacy, which can be described as a person’s ability to be in command of personal information and how that information is distributed to others.
Society today is full of changing technology, new products, and technological progression. With these advancements, privacy has also been transformed, altered, and applied differently. Cyberspace has created a set of privacy issues that were not previously relevant. The ease by which information is gathered has caused the public to question what information is truly private. Search engine information gathering is a very relevant issue because of the type of information that is able to be gathered as well as the ease in which it is done. Google is currently the most notorious search engine, as well as, a rapidly expanding company with an increasing number of products. Google’s growing prominence in the cyber world has forced many to question and look at what information Google has access to and whether or not it is acceptable.
Google’s e-mail service is another product that is scrutinized because of privacy issues. G-mail is the e-mail product that Google has created. Initially many started using G-mail because of its large storage capabilities. G-mail provided more room to save photos, videos and whatever needed to be stored. A user never has to delete e-mail because of the storage capabilities and it is also easy and convenient to use. E-mail is also interesting because everything you receive and send is stored by Google, even when deleted by the user. Although Google will not necessarily look at the e-mail, they use a scanning program to scan the e-mail and provide relevant ads to the user. The scanned e-mail is then stored on the company’s system. Some of the new features that G-mail provides include the ability to merge accounts so that e-mail can be sent from Google, but will appear to have been sent from a different account. The capability of this new feature allows for Google to save an e-mail even if the user wanted a different account to appear as the sender. Google can put together a detailed profile on every G-mail user because all of their e-mails are scanned and stored. Although Google does use the information to provide relevant ads, it violates users’ ethical right to information privacy.
AdSense is the product that Google uses for advertising. Google is not technically reading your e-mail; however, AdSense is scanning it for key words to provide relevant advertising. “Google AdSense is a fast and easy way for website publishers of all sizes to display relevant Google ads on their website's content pages and earn money. Because the ads are related to what your visitors are looking for on your site — or matched to the characteristics and interests of the visitors your content attracts — you'll finally have a way to both monetize and enhance your content pages. It's also a way for website publishers to provide Google web and site search to their visitors, and to earn money by displaying Google ads on the search results pages.” 8 AdSense customers allow Google to document what people are clicking when they enter the customer’s website and what type of advertising best suits users of the customer’s website. Companies give up some of their website privacy when they sign on to use AdSense.
Google Maps is another one of Google’s products. In addition to Yahoo Maps and Mapquest, Google also has a mapping and directions product. Like Google search, Google is able to store all of your searches and see exactly where you have mapped. While they may not know exactly where your home is, it would be easy to deduce based on frequent searches coming from or going to a particular site. Google Earth, like Google Maps, is able to locate different locations. Google Earth uses satellite and pictures to locate the locations that are requested by the consumer.
The most recent acquisition of Google’s is the video sharing website YouTube. In October, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion shares in stock. Everyday 65,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube and 100,000,000 videos are watched. 9 With this recent acquisition new privacy issues are faced. Even though YouTube will continue to have its own identity, it will still be owned by Google. Now, Google is gaining access to videos and information that is uploaded to the site. In addition, because Google has such a large advertising base, they will be able to incorporate this with YouTube’s advertising as well. An interesting issue is the marked change in how Google operates. Instead of trying to improve their Google Video product to compete with YouTube, they simply bought YouTube. The acquisition of YouTube presents the issue: if Google can’t get access to your information, they can simply buy someone who does.
A serious privacy problem that is becoming apparent with Google products is the merging of data. Currently a company such as Google only has the information from people who use their products, but these products are slowly covering a vast scope of information and privacy is being compromised. For example, Google Finance could have someone’s financial information, Google Search could have their search history, Froogle could have their shopping preferences, and Google Maps could have all of their map search history. Small bits and pieces of information are scattered in different areas, which does not present a problem because different information is in different places. However, when Google merges this data then there is one place that has all private information and privacy is compromised. Google is slowly being able to do this as they create more products that save all different types of personal information. In addition, recent mergers and acquisitions have shown that even if Google does not have access to your personal information, they may be able to buy it. By purchasing YouTube, Google has gained access to millions of YouTube customer profiles and accounts. The break up of data and information allows consumers to decide who they want to have their private information. An essential part of privacy is the consumer’s ability to choose who gets their private information, and once choice is no longer available, privacy is no longer available.
Questions and Ethical Thoughts
In continuing with the Rights Approach, human beings have the right not to be manipulated. If searching trends are being tracked without user knowledge, merged with a newly acquired company, and later solicited for business based off of gathered information, the users rights are being violated because of manipulation. The user had no intent of this newly acquired company using their information and did not agree to give this information to them.
With the cutting edge technology that Google is known for, the line between privacy and public domain has become blurred. In turn, several questions pertaining to the ethical aspects of Google practice can be asked. First, is it right for Google to collect, keep and use information that they have gathered about you? Consumers need to decide if they are serious about privacy and think “before you Google for something, think about whether or not you want that on your permanent record. If not, don’t Google or take steps so that the search can not be tied back to you.” 12
Next, one must ask: at what point is privacy compromised for the success of a company? What information is too much? Google has grown exorbitantly since its creation in 1998. Much of this growth can be attributed to Google’s ability to understand its consumers.
Google was created in 1998 and has been providing internet search technology and other services for nine years. In those nine years Google has created a company that is profitable, growing, innovative, and continues to earn the trust of people around the world. Google has a reputation as a great company to work for, and they treat their employees very well. Recently, Google was named the best company to work for in 2007 by Fortune magazine. Google also recruits the most qualified and highly intelligent people to work for them. When people believe that a company cares about the well being of its employees they are more likely to trust that company because they believe the companies attitude toward its employees will carry over to caring about the well being of its customers. Until customers feel that Google is no longer trustworthy, they will continue to use Google products and grant Google access to personal information.
Privacy is a very serious issue and it is important that companies are responsible about how they deal with customer’s private information. Google’s success can be largely attributed to their ability to stay ahead of the changing trends and their ability to provide the best services. However, in doing this, Google has become unethical in the information that they are storing about their users. While Google does have a privacy policies that pertain to specific products, the policies are too broad and too loose to actually protect the rights of its users. The open-ended terms of the policy allow for third parties to gain access to user information based on Google’s claim that they are a “trusted business.” In doing this, Google violates the Rights Approach because consumer choice is being taken away. The average user of Google is not aware of every Google practice, nor do they have the knowledge of how to protect themselves and their privacy. Google must provide their users with more options, and do so in a clear and understandable way. In order to truly respect the rights of its customers, Google should provide the opportunity for a user to decide whether or not they want their e-mails scanned, if they want their searching trends stored, and if they want the links that they collect on remembered. Google’s practices are just the beginning of what internet search engines and other products are doing to improve and “get ahead.” This goes further in showing that the burden has almost completely shifted to that of the consumer, and it is up to the individual to truly understand what they are getting themselves into and how to take the necessary steps to protect themselves.
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 "Privacy." [Online Document] Judith DeCew. [2007 Feb 26]. Avalible at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/privacy/
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 J. E. Vascellaro, "In Search of... Better Ways to Search." [Online Document] Wall Street Journal. [2007 March 1], Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article_print/SB116900247137978454
 "Adsense." [Online Document], Google [2007 Feb 15], Available at http://www.google.com/privacypolicy.html
 "Two Kings get together." [Online Document] The Economist Newspaper.[2007 Feb 9], Available at: http://www.economist.com.
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