Should We Take Google at Their Word on Privacy?

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Photo Source: New York Times

So Google has seen the light on privacy, or so they tell us. Sundar Pichai spent a LOT of very valuable stage time during the Google I/O Keynote trying to shift the narrative that they are only interested in Hoovering up as much user data as possible and convince us that they have turned over a new leaf. Was he successful?

Mr Pichai was also handed a bully pulpit to push this newfound privacy narrative narrative in the New York Times, as he (and  others from Google, I’m sure) wrote an opinion piece on how they care about privacy for everyone, with some very direct shade thrown at Apple right in the headline: Privacy Should Not Be a Luxury Good. Nice one.

I’m am not going to dive into a point-by-point breakdown of Google’s new privacy focus, but I will hit some main arguments:

Google’s business strategy has not changed. They can talk about privacy and incognito modes all they want, but they don’t just want your data, they still need your data. A speech and an article do not change any of that.

Before you label me as a hater, know this. I understand that they are offering users something real in return for their data. Google’s services are really, really good. I still use a few of them myself. I’m also not saying that there’s anything nefarious going on here. Google isn’t anywhere close to Facebook when it comes to playing fast and loose with its users’ information.

That said, Google has also spent over a decade dangling free stuff while not always being so transparent about what the bargain for the free stuff was. People want free and cheap goods and services and they don’t usually read the fine print when they accept those Terms of Service and sign on the dotted line. It’s not like Google was oblivious to that fact and they didn’t start changing until they started taking some real flak for it.

Now, to their credit, rather than go to the regulator and anti-trust mattresses like Microsoft did in the 90s, Google has gradually capitulated over the last few years and made it possible to remove and protect data. Now they are making that progressively less obscure and easier to do. However, Google also knows that the vast majority of people will never touch these settings. Even most technophiles will note the new features mentioned today but never actually use them. As I said above, Google’s business model isn’t changing.

As for the shade thrown at Apple, that was expected. While Tim Cook has spent more time bashing Facebook, he’s still made his digs at Google. The thing is, it’s an easy position for him to take. His company isn’t built on user data, so there is no risk and no sacrifice made to hold this ground. He knows his hardline stance on user data privacy differentiates Apple from its competitors and he’s used that to full advantage.

When Cook first started really digging in on privacy a couple of years ago, I wondered if it would make an impact. It seemed like users really didn’t care that much at the time. However, the scandals that have rocked Facebook and high profile hacks that have hit individuals, companies and even our government have made people take note. It isn’t just thee tech-savvy, either. Regular people know and actually care about this issue now. As for Google, if Tim Cook wasn’t hitting a nerve, I wouldn’t be writing about this NYT article. It exists because Pichai and his board and leaders at Google knew they had to address this issue.

I expect some jabs to fly back and forth now, which could be kind of fun. You can bet that a big response backhand of some kind, even if in jest, is coming during the WWDC Keynote. It will be interesting to see if Cook takes a break from chopping on Facebook to take some real swings at Google now after the “luxury good” comment. That could get interesting very quickly. Apple and Google are always competing, but they rarely go at each other so directly.

As for the New York Times, this isn’t a great look. You give Sundar Pichai a free-reign opinion piece about how Google is suddenly all-in on user data privacy and all “me-too, me-too” on government regulation, yet I’ve haven’t seen Tim Cook get a similar opportunity. I mean, he was the lone voice crying in the wilderness about privacy for a couple of years when no one was listening. The guy who staked the ground first, whatever the reasons, should at least be heard in response. Instead, the best Apple can get in the NYT recently on privacy is a tacit pat on the back in one opinion piece and a lot of dismissal in another. If Cook isn’t given a similar platform in the paper, then their Privacy Project is just an emperor with no clothes in my opinion.

Do you want the real truth about this? Google doesn’t give a damn about privacy. Not really. It doesn’t matter what was said on stage or in this article, privacy is not at the core of their business directive. In some ways, it is actually counter to it. This is a position that has been forced on Google. To their credit, they are making the best of it. However, I can guarantee you that this is not some new mission for the company. They do not truly care about data privacy and they never will.

Here’s another one for you. Apple doesn’t give a damn about your privacy, either. Despite all the passionate speeches from Tim Cook, at the end of the day, this is a position of convenience for Apple that they have progressively weaponized. It doesn’t hurt them to take this stand but they can use it to hurt their competitors. I truly believe that workers and execs at Apple are passionate about hardware and about iOS, but not privacy. Focus required for a business strategy does not equal passion.

Privacy is forced on Google and is convenient for Apple, but at the end of the day, this is the real heart of the matter: The only one who might actually care about your privacy is you. Don’t forget it.


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