Time for an evil umpire: Google, Microsoft & privacy

Time for an evil umpire: Google, Microsoft & privacy

Summary: Google proves you’re the product; is Microsoft any better?We’ve been saying for a while that if you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

TOPICS: Windows

Google proves you’re the product; is Microsoft any better?

We’ve been saying for a while that if you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. That reCAPTCHA you fill in to make a comment here or on hundreds of other sites? That’s free to the site, free to the developer – and using your brain to check the OCR Google uses when scanning into Google Books (which is a whole other discussion about what’s free and to whose benefit). You’re not the customer, and neither is the Web site; you’re the product. Your free Gmail storage? Source of both a vast amount of data to help Google understand how to place relevant ads on page and a vast inventory of ad pages to put those ads on. (Microsoft’s amusing video about people getting upset when they see the Gmail Man reading their mail as he delivers it seems closer to my own reaction to Gmail than most users, given how popular Gmail remains.)


Plastered across the various Google sites at the moment is the announcement “We're changing our privacy policy. This stuff matters.” It certainly does.

Taking the individual privacy policies and making them one policy that lets Google correlate the information it gets about you in different ways? That’s making you a more efficient product – and in return, you might well get a more efficient product to use for ‘free’. If that’s a tradeoff you’re happy making, you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. If it’s not, you might be looking at trying some other services. Perhaps from Microsoft?

If you’re in the former camp, you’re going to be viewing the ads Microsoft is putting in various newspapers today with some suspicion. “Google is in the process of making some unpopular changes to some of their most popular products,” say the ads (and a blog post with much the same information). “Those changes, cloaked in language like ‘transparency,’ ‘simplicity’ and ‘consistency,’ are really about one thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between everything you search, send, say or stream while using one of its services.”

Doesn’t Microsoft already have a privacy policy that ties together Bing and my Live Account? Isn’t that just as bad? Not when the personally identifiable information can’t be correlated with your searches because it’s stored in a one-way hash so you stay anonymous. Bing also tells you when the search results you’re getting have been personalised and has a handy link to let you get the unpersonalised results if you prefer them. Hotmail doesn’t scan your email at all.

As Microsoft head of communications Frank Shaw put it when talking to Mary Jo Foley on ZDNet US, “There is a difference between policy and practice. We don’t read customers mail. We don’t read customer documents. We don’t triangulate YouTube views and searches. We don’t use the content of your Hotmail to target ads in Bing.”

When I asked for more details, Microsoft told us, it's really "two different approaches. Google’s approach makes it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information. We take a different approach – we work to help keep you safer and more secure online, to give you choices about your data, and to offer you the option of saving your information on your hard drive, in the cloud, or on both."

Attacking Google, even when Google is doing something that’s broadly unpopular, is a feisty move from Microsoft that could backfire. Although it’s been a good few months since I last heard anybody declare that ‘Microsoft is dead,’ the sins of the past have left plenty of people simply not believing anything but the worst of Microsoft (most of the accusations I see are shorn of any examples that post-date the DoJ conviction, which is sometimes a sign of prejudice rather than actual peccadillo). For a brief time yesterday, if you searched for Google on Bing, your results came with a whimsical (or possibly plaintive) request not to leave so soon (along with a link to get straight to Google if that's what you wanted). Microsoft calls that "always experimenting with new ways to increase the engagement of its users" and I thought it was charming (like Frank Shaw's suggestion that if you'd tried Microsoft services in the past, you could come back and see if the improvements suited you better - "we've left the light on for you," he said). But getting the tone right is hard; there's bound to be someone that finds it irritating.

As I've said before, this is a bigger issue than just the current changes in Google's policy and to really compare who's helping the user this needs to be more than a case of ‘he said, she said’. We need some actual privacy standards, or even regulations. We need some independent assessment. We need, if you’ll pardon the pun, an Evil Umpire.

Mary Branscombe

Incidentally, if you’re trying to go cold turkey on the Google ecosystem and you’re looking for a YouTube alternative, I’m fond of Vimeo which has both stunning content – the time lapse video of the Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station that did the rounds last year is on Vimeo – and none of the stunningly stupid and offensive comments that are so prevalent on YouTube. The official Vimeo app for Windows Phone has just launched, with nice options like automatically putting the video you most recently marked to watch later as thumbnail that you see as the first thing when you open the application. Which is rather nice.

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • And how much did Microsoft pay you for that article?
  • James - exactly as much as anyone paid you for your comment; I don't feel that I need to say that I'm independant and unbiased, but just for you I'll repeat it. Feel free to disagree with the substance of what I say, but we'll have a more worthwhile discussion if you can bring some actual facts and evidence to bear.
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Didn't seem particularly biased to me either. Oh though you might have mentioned some other competitors with free search and email services available in English. Erm.. Yahoo? That may be all.

    Google's move really worries me too. I tried some alternative search engines including duckduckgo which has a nice interface but just doesn't do the search as well as google, bing isn't even a serious contender for me. The problem here is that google is in a very dominant position and for people who actually have searches to do there aren't any quality alternatives. I try and stay logged out as much as possible, if everyone did that then that would force google to take privacy more seriously.