The Privacy Shuffle: Google and Twitter

Internet privacyPrivacy and freedom of speech are the two topics inextricably entwined with the use of social media. The relentless media spotlight on Facebook’s privacy failures demonstrates it, as does the recent furor over Google’s ban on pseudonyms. Both companies tout their efforts to help protect your privacy, but both have abandoned that stance repeatedly.

For instance, Google recently announced that it has made SSL encryption the default for logged-in users. The Google blog has a post up explaining that this means that your search query will not be forwarded to the websites you’re visiting. The only thing they will see is that you got there as an organic result. Sounds good in terms of privacy protection, doesn’t it?

The thing that gets glossed over is that AdWords users still receive the query data. JDevalk at SEO Book had the same reaction I did:

This is what I call hypocrisy at work. Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don’t. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public ‘stunt’. The issue is, they don’t care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers.

He also points out that Google still possesses your search data. All of it. It’s just that website owners only receive aggregated data from Google’s Webmaster Tools. Since those tools are constantly under fire for innacuracy, that is not very heartening. All in all, it’s merely another case of profits trumping privacy. After all, they still have to prove ROI on AdWords in order to sell the Webmaster Tools product.

On other end of the privacy spectrum is Twitter, the digital force behind Tahrir Square that has policies in place that I have much more respect for. Matthew Ingram at GigaOm cites a few reasons:

Twitter’s commitment to this principle has been put to the test more than once already. In Britain, the company was hauled on the carpet by the British authorities along with Facebook and Research In Motion after the riots in London, because the governing party was considering blocking access to networks such as Twitter and BlackBerry instant messaging. In his Web 2.0 interview, Costolo said that the company resisted this idea, and instead pointed out that many of the Twitter messages about the riot were actually about cleaning up or promoting good behavior rather than inciting violence as many critics of the service seemed to suggest. Said Costolo: ‘One of our core values is respect and the need to defend the user’s voice.’

More recently, Twitter stood up to the Department of Justice (DOJ) when it was investigating WikiLeaks. Twitter took the DOJ to court and won the right to let the users know that their data was being sought. This data was not confined to tweets, but also IP addresses, payment information from user accounts, and more. (You can get details on that and a full copy of the DOJ subpoena in Ingram’s January 8th post.)

This is more the sort of behavior I want from any central gatekeeper that has custody of my info. If Twitter had not gone to battle for those people, they never would have known the info was requested, and, as a result, would never have had the opportunity to fight the process. No matter what your opinion on WikiLeaks might be, it is still their right to have the opportunity to defend themselves.

It is rumored that both Facebook and Google received similar subpoenas but both companies refuse to comment. Not the sort of reaction that inspires confidence.

Attempting to make a profit is what businesses do by definition. There is nothing wrong with that. But when businesses have all your data in their hands, we need to demand that it’s safe there.

Source: “For Twitter, free speech matters — not real names,” GigaOm, 10/18/11
Source: “Google Whores Out Users With False Privacy Claims,” SEO Book, 10/18/11
Image by o5com, used under its Creative Commons license.

About George Williams

George "Loki" Williams is the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content, community management and social media. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters and Kaiser Permanente. He is one of the organizers of the Rising Tide Conference in New Orleans, and his work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, and NOLA.com, among others.

   

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  1. Loki,

    You state that “Google still possesses your search data. All of it.” That’s not really accurate.

    They only have “your” data if you log into a Google account. If you don’t log in, they have data, but not “your” data — the data is not associated with your account, only with an IP address, and that IP address is usually not a unique identifier.

    We still have the choice of not logging in before surfing.

  2. Loki says:

    You’re right, I should have qualified that. I meant the general “you,” referring to the average web surfer, most of whom log in and forget about it.

    As with many basic security measures of that sort the big obstacle is a combination of not being informed and the natural human tendency toward the path of least resistance.