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Why Do We Trust Google More Than Facebook?

This morning Matt Asay found a thought-provoking new blog from someone with the alias Newclosed, who's inaugural post raises interesting questions about the role of Google in the IT community.

Things get going right away in the posting, which states in the lede: "I say Google is the new Microsoft and in many cases they are even worse."

Hoo boy.

You might think this is a going to be another screed that tries to fillet Google and ends up sounding like a lunatic's diatribe... but in actuality, it's a well-thought essay that lays out a compelling case.

The crux of the argument behind this statement is this: Microsoft is criticized for wanting to own too much of the PC platform. Google will wants the same... only it wants to "own" the Web platform, which is predicted to be the next big thing. Every product Google releases is designed to get users to the cloud.

But what really bakes Newclosed's noodle is this:

"Now I also said Google is more dangerous to the end users than Microsoft could be. Microsoft never owned user’s data. The only attempt at storing user's data backfired big time for Microsoft. Remember passport and the outrage after the announcement? Users give Google all their data and all the services built on top of Google's API will give it more data. Google is dangerous because there is no outrage."

And here we have to give pause--why aren't more people mad at Google about how they hold user's data? Sure, there have been pockets of pushbacks: the recent kerfuffle about Google's collection of WiFi data and accompanying data packets are a good example. But that pales in comparison, I would suspect, to the sheer quantities of information Google has on users just acquired from daily use.

It's not that privacy is an uninteresting issue--the reaction to Facebook's privacy changes disproves that quite handily.

For some reason, there is a convenient free pass given to Google for using our data for commercial purposes. And before you accuse me of hypocrisy, I will freely admit that I do it, too. And I'm not sure why. Here are some self-examining reasons I came up with that might apply to other people:

  • It's a trade-off. I just want to get on the Web, find what I need, and get on with my day. If I have to let Google have a little of my personal information in order to accomplish what I want to want, then I can live with that. Tim O'Reilly brought up this same point in a recent video blog entry: "The essence of my argument is that there's enormous advantage for users in giving up some privacy online and that we need to be exploring the boundary conditions--asking ourselves when is it good for users, and when is it bad, to reveal their personal information."
  • Google is more transparent. Facebook is getting hammered for changing its privacy rules so often, while at least Google is transparent about its use of user data. Yeah, that sounds good, but when I think about it more, I have a hard time believing that we know everything Google is doing with the user data. Given Google's complexity, I would doubt that Google doesn't know everything its employees are doing with user data, even for "benign" research.
  • Google is just too pervasive. You can't avoid them, so why bother? At least Facebook is fenced off enough that you can actually leave it. Erm, no. It's not impossible to use the Web without Google.
  • Google is the best hope for Linux/open source. This is the most cynical rationale of the bunch, but it could explain why the Linux community, normally hyper-aware of privacy issues, has been quieter than usual about Google. Google has put a lot of time, resources, and money into Linux and open source software. ChromeOS is based on Ubuntu, Android is Linux-based, and Google's cloud is very penguin powered. Is that why the open source community is leaving them alone? I don't think that's it--if anything, Linux advocates would see Google's participation in Linux as a perfectly good reason to dictate terms to Google.

So what could the reason be? I am leaning towards the first--people are willing to pay the price for convenience from Google with a little less privacy. Google, as long as it does not abuse its end of the relationship, will continue to have this trust. And they know it: compare the speed and candor of their response to the WiFi problem to the lack of the same type of response from Facebook for the privacy problems. Sure, we think, Google screwed up, but at least they own up to it.

That kind of perception goes a long way to making users content. The question becomes: is such contentment something we should resist?

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