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Ah, Google: the software is free – you, not so much
We are so lucky in the ‘cloud’ – vendors upgrade, with or without us. It must have been a thorn in the side of Google engineering that they had separate privacy policies for each of their products. And they were probably plagued by inconsistent contact handling between Gmail, Gmail chat, Google+, and their boatload of acquired companies (like Youtube, DoubleClick, Feedburner, etc.) As they simplify their own maintenance workload beginning on March 1, this streamlining could be an interesting challenge for users. Many ‘features’ and new defaults may startle -- and not in a positive way.
The ultimate privacy invasion: designed for ‘opt out’ not ‘opt in’. So let’s see: you are an elderly woman who gives her Gmail address to what appears to be a business (charity, credit card company or political campaigner). They send her an e-mail, she replies. At other times, she uses Gmail’s chat function to connect with her grandchildren. She is soon surprised at seeing those business contacts in her chat contact list. These are people that she does not know well, yet they can reach her whenever she appears online. She has to block them individually – aka ‘opt out’ one at a time, rather than ‘opt in’ to enable chat. I could replace the scenario of the elderly woman with a different scenario that includes an 11-year-old girl, but you get the idea. These contact settings are not intuitive and must be overridden by resetting defaults or blocking individuals one at a time. Now really, who will help seniors with these new versions of software in which the change is an additional default setting discussed only in online tech forums?
Ad preferences – do they help seniors opt out of ‘personalization’? This promises to become even more interesting after March 1. Maybe you don’t want Google to display ads that show how much the company knows about you. Perhaps you sent an e-mail that had words in it that referenced your volunteer project with older adults. But since you are only 22, you really don’t want to see products and marketing that targets older adults. So using Settings, you opt out of ad personalization. You are warned that you now lose the right to block specific advertisers; there is no way to block all advertisers, of course. So you think you’re clever by changing the setting to Opt in long enough to block an advertiser, then set the setting back to Opt out? Nope. Google warns you that opting out causes the list of advertisers that you may have previously blocked to be deleted. So the control you thought you could exercise over the ad content displayed, forget it. That is the real privacy invasion – it’s less about what the company decides on your behalf, far more about your limited rights to override their decisions.
This is your life on a cloud. Remember that this is an advertising revenue model that underpins most of the ‘free’ software that does not need to be downloaded onto a computer. It’s not that you really mind that it is free or that it paid for by ad revenue. That's fine. And you like that you don’t have to hire software installation experts to take advantage of software improvements – these may turn out to be unpopular and perhaps they will disappear quietly later. It’s that your role in the process is assumed to be friendly and that you are eager to share. How delightfully naïve -- but really, how inadvertently dangerous.