Centre for Internet & Society

Whether we like it or not, we live in a world that is rapidly being Googlised, writes Nishant Shah in an article published by the Financial Express on February 13, 2012.

Apart from its core functions like search and email, we consume Google services and products around the clock and around the click—YouTube, Calendar, Docs, Google+, Google Reader, Google Analytics et al. On March 1, 2012, our increasingly co-dependent relationship with Google will reach a new stage of commitment as Google consolidates its privacy policies for the entire Google universe. If you are logged into your Google account, all your information across Google’s different platforms will be clubbed together to form a comprehensive profile of what you do online.

Google has suggested this will personalise your interactions with Google platforms. The videos you watch on YouTube might influence your search results; the links that you click on will affect the advertisements displayed to you; the mails that you read will establish proximity with your friends on Google+ ... A comprehensive profile of who you are, what you do, what you like, what you share and what you hide will be created. Google has shown unmatched commitment to transparency on user data retention, storage and usage over the years. However, a centralised profile on users rings a few alarm bells for me. There are three use-cases that immediately crop up with apocalyptic implications.

Death of anonymity: One of the biggest strengths of the internet, as a space for both political dissent and freedom of expression, is that it has allowed people to talk through their avatars without putting themselves in conditions of bodily harm. So, it was good to have a scenario where my activities on YouTube did not get mapped onto my more identifiable profile on Google+ and did not get correlated with my personal interactions on Gmail. Mapping all the actions of a user who might want a more distributed identity might lead to precarious conditions for users living in critical times.

Negotiation with governments: While Google claims that it is committed to protecting the safety of its users, we know that it is eventually subject to the rules of the countries that it operates in. In the past, say in skirmishes with China, we have seen that despite its powerful status, it is not exempt from the demands of different governments. Given the current state of negotiations around censorship that are ongoing in India, it is a little scary to think how users’ data can be abused by authoritative government officials. A multi-tiered, distributed system offers users safety which a consolidated one doesn’t.

Inter-platform repercussions: If something I do on a platform gets flagged as objectionable, does it mean that all my rights to Google World get revoked?

Hidden data collection: One of the things that a lot of people don’t realise is that Google, in its attempts at enriching our user experience, collects more data than you disclose. So, apart from the personal data that you have more control over, there is a range of other data—pages you visit, the time you spend there, links you click on, comments that you write, information you share, etc—which form a part of Google’s algorithms for you. Consolidation of this data through services like Ad Sense and Double Click might also expose you to third party advertisers who might abuse this information that is about you but not under your control.

Google’s consolidation of its privacy policies across platforms signal a new wave of information management on the web, where the earlier free-form distributed information practice is getting mapped on to the physical bodies of the users. While it might lead to better web services, it also means that we need to be more aware of our information practices and start preparing for a web that is going to demand more accountability from its users than ever before.

The author is a digital humanities scholar and Director-Research at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.

The original article was published in the Financial Express

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