Use Google? Time to Get Real About Protecting Your Digital Self

I'm convinced that Google, too, sees this as a very delicate moment. That's where this Good to Know campaign comes from--a rare print advertising campaign to reach the Luddites and Ron Swansons of the world, who tend to be more wary of putting things online than your average college student. In addition to luring in the untapped crowds who are still getting their news in print, the campaign is also aimed at reaching the marginally inquisitive user (the type whose gotten more curious after reading an article from What They Know) with "Jargon Buster" real English explanations of things like cookies and IP addresses. They do a decent job of simply explaining how these things work and how they make services on the web more "useful." Google deserves kudos for making these traditionally dense policies more user-friendly. And to Google writers' credit, you can't argue with the idea that relevance based on increasingly detailed browsing, email, location, and search history makes our lives easier, and results more relevant. But it's not without trade offs.

I hope policy changes like this will give users an opportunity to reflect on our exposure to Google and other tech companies. Perhaps this is the mental model we needed: the existence of a complete user data profile of our entire internet history, which Google asks us to sign away for use of its free services. Will this idea be big enough -- and simple enough -- to get more people to think critically about our data trails?

To what end, you might ask? What does awareness matter if we still to go on using Google's search engine? It matters a lot. If I'm more aware of my data relationship to Google, I might think twice about entering a search term as innocuous as "incontinence" or as damning as "divorce lawyer." I might think twice about buying an Android phone. This is about thinking through behaviors and platform choices.

Being more critical about our data exposure starts to really matter when we look at the more extreme implications of these user data profiles. Google notes that they don't share our data externally except in rare circumstances of court orders. But we know that Google's complying with 94 percent of those requests to date. Google's shifting policy on real name registration perhaps inspired emerging policies for microblogs in China, where the requirement will be expressly used for governmental monitoring purposes. While I think it's sensationalizing to suggest that these policy changes signal Google has flipped to the dark side, it's also naive to think that Google will always stand up to it's "Don't Be Evil" mantra. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has suggested, we must always assume that the defaults will be set in Google's economic favor, that we shouldn't be fooled by statements of corporate fundamentalism, and that we can't assume that Google's benevolence will last forever. Fear mongering isn't helpful, but we could all use a more critical approach when it comes to our online lives.

Personally, I'm inspired to find ways of disentangling myself from my complete and utter reliance on Google products. It's the kick in the pants I needed to export my bookmarks and switch back to Firefox as my default browser. And perhaps I'll start uploading new pictures to Flickr (which for infuriating log-in reasons, I skipped over when deciding on a photo uploading site last year). But I'll admit, I won't be giving up Gmail or moving my searches over to Bing anytime soon. I'm not calling for a boycott by any means, I'm just looking for a little more critical public discourse on our data.

We must each begin to test our thresholds for levels of exposure and begin to question the nature of our relationships with these companies. We must ask ourselves, at what point does Google know more about me than I'm comfortable with? And we must think about these questions not only based on companies' postures today, but on their unpredictable potential use down the road.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.

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Sara M. Watson is a technology critic and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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