Friday, March 2, 2012

Trying to Escape the Maw of Google

I'm far from a Google basher: I have a number of Gmail accounts and this Blogger account, I use YouTube and Reader and Google Docs, among other products. Their products are (nominally) free and generally pretty good.

However, to paraphrase several pundits, in any relationship with a company, you're either a customer or the product, and it's pretty easy to tell which one you are: look at where the money flows. For Google, the user pays nothing and the advertiser pays Google - and pays more the better targeted are Google's ads. To Google, I'm the product.

This isn't an inherently bad thing. Steven Levy, in his 2011 book about Google In the Plex, described how the firm harnessed its search engine into a way of selling ads in a way that was more valuable to advertisers than ever before. Google managed to monetize its business in a way that predecessor Internet firms had tried and failed. I was happy to trade off some information - about my searches, or words contained in email - in order to use Google's products.

There comes a point, however, when one starts to wonder when enough is enough. Google has recently changed its privacy policy to make explicit that it will use information gathered across all of a user's Google accounts to better target ads. I don't find that unreasonable, and Google is being upfront about it, but the policy change starkly illustrates how we are tied into Google's ecosystem.

Of course, other companies try to keep users within their ecosystems, too. The difference is that Apple sells hardware, and provides ancillary services (e.g., iCloud) to spur additional hardware purchases. Microsoft sells operating systems and business productivity software, and provides ancillary services (e.g., a virus checker) to enhance the core products that the firm sells to users. To Apple and Microsoft, users are the customers.

Recently, MG Siegler (via Ben Brooks) noted that Google is attempting to have new Gmail users provide credit card information at the time of signup in order to gain support for Google Wallet. Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, but one has to ask how much personal information one wants to give any one company, particularly when that company treats you as the product, not the customer.

Worse was the recent revelation that Google overrode the default privacy setting in Safari in order to put tracking cookies on users' equipment. While tracking cookies are not a problem per se, overriding browser settings without informing the user is sleazy.

I've stopped using Google Calendar, and do very little with Google+ (not for lack of trying, though; it just never seemed all that useful). I can't do without Reader, and too many important emails come through Gmail to get rid of it, but I will be making an effort to reduce my dependence on the Google empire.

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