Take My Privacy, Please! A Defense of Google


Katherine Mangu-Ward

People love to freak out about incursions on their privacy. And by "people" I mean cable news shows. A week ago, Google implemented a plan to aggregate (most of) the data they collect from the many, many products they offer. Not to collect new data. Not to publish or disseminate that data in a new way. Just to put all the data in one pot and use it to tailor search results and ads across various platforms. Cue widespread panic about online privacy. Previously sacrosanct! Now utterly violated! Again!

As it happens, we know how much people value their privacy: They'll sell information about every prescription they fill at CVS -- or every pint of Haagen Dazs at Safeway -- in exchange for a steady infusion of $1 coupons. They'll hand off information about the timing of their daily commute in exchange for a couple of minutes saved at a toll booth every day. They'll let Amazon track their diaper and book purchases because they would rather not re-enter their credit card number every time they want to buy something.

In contrast to those seemingly paltry payoffs, I think people get a pretty decent bargain when they hand over their personal browsing, search, and email data to Google: powerful tailored search results, an elegant, efficient email management system, photo and document storage space of science-fictional proportions, and instant access to every otter video (and/or TED talk) of all time.

The price? Google does its darnedest to sell you stuff you would probably like to buy.

Two some extent this is just a two kinds of people thing. When you watch a YouTube video about replacing busted tire and then Google suggests a local repair shop with high yelp ratings, do you respond "cool" or "creepy"? I've always dug the magical quality of advanced technology.

But if you're more skeeved than pleased, consider letting your brain overpower your gut here. This is a fact you cannot change: All the free stuff on the Internet is possible because you slap your eyeballs on some ads from time to time. If Google and other retailers can't scrape and sort your data to offer a few well targeted ads, there are two other viable choices: 1) Less of the free stuff you like. Like this blog. It might stop being free. For instance. 2) More ads in the throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks school. Think: those annoying dancing silhouette gals selling cheap mortgages.

More upsides of life in the Googleverse: Google shrank and simplified their privacy policy, making some decent progress toward correcting this shocking semi-legit statistic from 2008 making the rounds this week: "Reading the privacy policies your encounter in a year would take 76 work days."

In 2003, Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy said: "You have no privacy. Get over it." He was right then. And he's even more right today. But don't just get over it. Learn to love it.

Bonus: For your daily dose of irony, check out this Washington Post which uses the words "spooky," "creepy," and "Tom Cruise" in a discussion of Google's new privacy policy. Now scan partway down the right sidebar, where readers are invited to "find the headlines that matter to you" on "Your Personal Post" -- an offer which asks readers to log in in order to customize the site based on the same concepts that power Google.


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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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