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Commentary

Google's Privacy Invasion: It's Your Fault

If we really wanted privacy, we would turn off JavaScript, block ads, and browse in privacy mode through an anonymous proxy. But we would rather have free services.
John Battelle, who runs advertising company Federated Media and has written about Google for years, suggests as much in a thoughtful blog post. "Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR friendly clothing of 'privacy protection' for users?" he asks.

Indeed, it's possible.

But Apple is too clever to be caught taking direct action to hinder its competition without plausible deniability. The company has recognized that justifying its actions by claiming security, privacy, or user experience benefits will make almost any change acceptable.

Apple's refusal to support Flash on iOS devices represents an example of this. Its claims about security and performance issues affecting Flash on mobile devices were fair enough. But by shunning Flash, Apple achieved a business benefit: It crippled a competing development platform.

Apple's Gatekeeper in its forthcoming OS X Mountain Lion offers another example. Apple's next Mac operating system will block the installation of apps from third-party developers without an Apple Developer ID by default. This is perfectly justifiable on the grounds of security (even if it undermines Apple's previous assertions that malware isn't a problem on the Mac). But it will also serve to reinforce Apple's control of the OS X software sales channel.

Apple's decision to block third-party cookies by default has extra cover: The RFCs that define how browsers should handle cookies indicate that third-party cookies should be blocked by default. The major browser makers have not followed this recommendation, choosing instead to rely on P3P, an automated mechanism for communicating privacy preferences that's generally seen as a compromise between privacy ideals and business needs.

If we accept Google's explanation that this was an accident at face value, and assume that Apple too is blameless and only wants the best for its users, what are we left with? Is the Wall Street Journal too hard on Google because its owner, Rupert Murdoch, thinks Google steals content, and perhaps goes easy on Apple to secure better access to exclusives? Are consumer advocacy groups focused on Google because Google bashing makes headlines, which help with fundraising?

No, let's put the blame where it belongs, on us, the users of the Internet. We rely on free services like Gmail while insisting on "privacy," a term that we probably can't even define to our collective satisfaction. We accept terms of service contracts and privacy policies that explain in excessive detail how we will not get privacy, how our information will be used, and then we object.

So instead of privacy, let's talk about control. You do have some of that, still. Make some choices about how your information will be used--because it will be used--instead of accepting default settings.

If you object to the way Google does business, use ad-blocking software. This is what the Electronic Frontier Foundation recommends, at least until Google implements Do Not Track in Chrome. Perhaps everyone will follow this advice, Google will collapse, and then we can all just go back to fee-for-service computing. How does a $0.25 per search and $99 for an Android 5.0 upgrade sound?

Here's to hoping that Google offers a paid membership option that disables all information collection and advertising across all its services. Then we will finally be able to see what the absence of privacy is worth.

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