Google Learned a Thing or Two from Facebook's Privacy Blunders

Google's new Good to Know privacy portal, which explains how and why the company collects user data, is a little bit like reverse engineering Facebook's privacy nightmares.

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Google's new Good to Know privacy portal, which explains how and why the company collects user data, is a little bit like reverse engineering Facebook's privacy nightmares. Though Google admits that the portal will serve as an ad campaign in the UK, it's set up as a one-stop-shop for users worldwide to learn both about Google's privacy practices and data security efforts. The cartoon-laden site simplifies everything from how Google protects against phishing attacks to exactly what happens when you click the +1 button. There's even a "Jargon Buster" feature that illustrates basic internet terms like "Cookie" and "IP Address" with YouTube video explainers. The fireside chat theme is a nice touch.

Everything about Google's new Good to Know portal just screams, "In your face, Mark Zuckerberg!" It's as if Google's privacy team has been sitting back taking notes on every single Facebook privacy complaint, then transcribing the lesson into Google terms on a warm and fuzzy webpage in anticipation of their users raising the same concerns. Actually, that's probably exactly how it happened.

Take the latest Facebook privacy blunder. Last month, an Australian blogger detailed how Facebook's Like button continues to track users around the internet even after they've logged out. The details of exactly how were complicated and left even developers arguing over the specific cookies at play in the blog's comments, but the story got simplified in the press as: Facebook tracks your every move and there's nothing you can do about it. Facebook is now dealing with government-led investigations around the world about the matter and a wiretapping lawsuit here in the United States.

Google's privacy team was clearly listening. The first menu item on the first page of Good to Know is none other than "Signing out," where Google very broadly explains how to make sure you're not being tracked. (Pro tip: turn off your computer.) Other pages, like the one on Google's Like button equivalent the +1, go into greater detail about how Google users your data, and it's careful to take every opportunity to show how collecting data is better for everyone--the page on "Helping society" wherein Google explains how its data to help cure diseases is a good example.

Whether they mean to or not, Google's simple explanations don't tell you everything about data security. As CNET's privacy blogger Violet Blue explains, the emphasis is put on "what Google thinks it knows about you," but the gesture alone makes Google look exceptionally transparent compared to competitors like Facebook and Apple:

I think that's part of why Google has done this: to set themselves apart. For instance, Apple doesn't have a Chief Privacy Officer. It should. Every other company that makes widgets and clogs bandwidth these days has one so it's no surprise to see Google step up its game - and it's really quite shocking (conspicuous?) that companies like Apple are falling behind in this arena.

The alternative to creating a portal like Google's Good to Know is that a user does it instead. And like the Australian blogger who started the bad-PR wildfire over Facebook tracking users, the users who have the time and desire to expose the truths behind these companies' privacy policies probably don't have many positive things to say.

In Austria, law school student Max Schrems has taken it upon himself to explain in gritty detail the many ways that Facebook tracks and stores users data. There's a distinct emphasis placed on how Facebook is violating European data protection laws and his campaign is gaining momentum. Schrems recently launched a website for his research called Europe v. Facebook--it's unintentionally pretty comparable to Google's new privacy policy portal in terms of the information available--and a corresponding YouTube channel. Compare this video that's gaining exposure on Reddit with Google's fireside chat:

Don't forget, by the way, that Google's new privacy portal is first and foremost an advertising effort.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.