Confessions of a Google junkie (or, Privacy? What privacy?)

A lot has been made of Google's new privacy policy and terms of use. I say bring it on.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

There are very few aspects of my life that don't somehow involve Google. My phone runs on Android, my favorite tablet just got an OTA update to Ice Cream Sandwich (!!!), I use Chrome across all of my computers, I develop AdWords campaigns, I use Analytics to develop metrics for the day job and dive into SEO, I handle many of the CBS Interactive Google webcasts, I use Google Docs almost exclusively for productivity, and my wife doesn't know where I am half the time until she checks my Google Calendar (which, in fact, aggregate two other Google Calendars).

I'm increasingly turning to Google+ as my source of relevant information and opinions, a function previously reserved for Twitter, and I've even dispensed with bookmarks, instead using Google Sites to organize important pages and resources.

I live, eat, breathe, work, and play Google and there aren't many people more aware of Google's business model and the amount of data it collects than I. So is it just sheer stupidity and naiveté that has me utterly embracing the Google ecosystem and relatively unconcerned about newly announced privacy policies that have caused so much consternation this week? Before you jump down to the talkbacks to tell me how stupid I really am, read on for another couple paragraphs.

As Larry Dignan pointed out in his post about the new policies last night,

Google noted that it already has all that data, but it’s now integrating that information across products. It’s a change in how Google will use the data not what it collects. In other words, Google already knows more about you than your wife.

From my perspective, though, I can live with Google knowing a lot about me. It knows, for example, that I've recently developed an obsession with the electric guitar and have been researching inexpensive models that I might just be able to justify as a birthday present to myself. It doesn't judge, it just shows me the best deals in display ads on the three models of guitar and 2 models of amps I've been reading about the most. My wife isn't aware of this obsession and her take on it would be judgmental (God love her!): "When will you have time to play guitar? And we're supposed to be saving money! And what's wrong with your acoustic guitar?"

Taking this a step further, as Google's new privacy policies and terms of use do, I should expect to start seeing guitar-related apps in my suggestions in the Google Market and the Chrome Marketplace. Guitarists on Google+ should start appearing in suggested people to add to my circles and Google Reader should offer to download Guitar Player Magazine feeds for me. And, more likely than not, I'll start seeing more guitar-related ads as well.

Google's goal, of course, is to sell advertising. That's about 97% of their revenue. By pulling people like me into their increasingly unified ecosystem, they can demonstrate very high click-through rates to potential advertisers and charge a premium to reach highly targeted and yet incredibly vast audiences.

Next: But they need to give me something in return »

They need to give me something in return

For me to buy into this, they need to give me something in return. Something to make all things Google really sticky. Like a wide array of free tools from Google Docs to Google Music to Google Voice. And cheap tools that I buy for my business like Google Apps and AdWords. Their new policies are designed to be more transparent, but also to pave the way for these tools to talk to each other better, making them even stickier through a unified experience and more relevant services.

Back to the wife comparison that Larry brought up. My wife knows that every Friday night is pizza night in our house. So does Google, since every Friday around 4:30 I pull out my Android and use Google Voice Search to find the number of whatever pizza joint we decide to patronize that week. Fine. Google, however, can actually do something more useful with that information than my wife can ("Where should I order pizza, sweetheart?" "Wherever, just not that place down the road. Or that other place. And make sure they're having a deal!").

Come Friday morning, the ads I see on Gmail or Google search should start being pretty pizza-heavy: Dominos, Papa Johns, and a place or two that has an active Google Offer. As I'm driving home that evening, the GPS on my phone should set off an alert when I drive past a well-reviewed pizza place (assuming I've set location-based preferences to alert me to destinations with at least four-star average reviews). And the minute I type a P in my mobile browser, Google Instant should leap into action and display nearby pizza places and a news story about a new place to get pizza in the next town.

We're not quite there yet, but this is the sort of integration and experience that Google is covering in its new policies and terms of use. I know that my privacy red flags should probably be going off. Google has gigabytes of information about me and is using that information to help its advertisers sell products. That's bad, right?

Guess what, folks? This is the semantic web

And yet, I don't think it is. Many of the same techies who cry foul over these new policies have also been pushing for the development of the semantic web to make it easier to find what we actually need in the trillions of web pages floating around the Internet. Guess what, folks? This is the semantic web. When our search engines know what we actually mean, when data on the web automagically becomes information we can use easily and quickly, we've arrived.

And the semantic web can't exist without "the web" (whatever that is) knowing a lot about us. It takes data for a computer to understand our needs and process natural language efficiently. Some of those data will necessarily be fairly personal.

Now, if I start getting spam from pizza places or calls on my Google Voice number from Dominos because Google has sold my contact information and preferences to advertisers, we have a problem and I'll be waving my privacy flag as high as anyone else. However, when I opt in by opening a Google account and staying logged in as I surf the web, I'm not only consenting to the collection and aggregation of data about me, I'm asking that it be done so that the web and related tools can be more useful to me. This sort of data mining lets me work faster, play easier, and find the best pizza in a 20-mile radius.

For its part, Google needs to remain the trusted broker of these data. No, I don't like the idea that our government could brand me a terrorist and seize these gigabytes of data under the Patriot Act. The alternative, though, is an ever-growing morass of web sites and tools that I get to dig through manually.

And, by the way, even if I'm not logged in to my Google account as I'm doing it, my ISP knows the sites I've visited, too, and could just as easily (if not more so) be compelled to turn over this information to the real Big Brother in all of this.

Far more trust in Google than the Feds

Honestly, I have far more trust in Google than I do in the Feds. Google is motivated by money: they need my trust to keep collecting those data to keep making it easier for me to buy things from Google's paying advertisers. If that trust is broken by inappropriate sharing of data, then my eyeballs go elsewhere and so do the advertisers who target me via AdWords and AdSense. Our government has no such financial motivation. Money talks.

The fact that the speech recognition on my phone kicks ass because I use Google Voice all the time and it's learned how I talk might be a little creepy, but it's far more important that I can do a Google search or send a text while I'm driving without taking my eyes off the road.

Welcome to 2012, folks. The semantic web has arrived. Use it well and let's keep Google's new policies in perspective. And Google? Don't be evil. I have a lot of colleagues who will be pointing, laughing, and saying I told you so if you ever are.

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