Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Google+

July 18, 2011

If you’ve been around the web recently, you’ve likely noticed some talk about a new social networking service by Google called Google+ (beta). I’ve used Google+, I’ve talked with other people that have used it, I’ve discussed it with people that haven’t used it, and I’ve gathered many reactions. Gist is, there might be a little to like about Google+, but as of this writing there isn’t anything compelling enough to get Facebook users to switch services.

However, the merits of Google+ as a quality service can be addressed at a later date. This entry is focused on privacy concerns in relation to advertising, and I think the concerns are major.

From the Google+ Project privacy statement:

We will record information about your activity – such as posts you comment on and the other users with whom you interact – in order to provide you and other users with a better experience on Google services.

We may also collect information about you from other users, such as when someone puts you in one of their circles or tags you in a photo.

In addition to the above, our uses of the information you provide to us are described in the Google Privacy Policy.

So let me get this straight. We need to go to the other privacy statement to figure out what our information is being used for? Okay.

we may use the information we collect to:
Provide, maintain, protect, and improve our services (including advertising services)

Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

We have your consent. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.

Google’s use of the word “opt-in” bugs me slightly, because while technically true, you are required to opt-in if you want to create an account with Google. You know what Google’s terms of service (that thing you don’t read before selecting “I have read and agree to the terms of service”) includes? Here is section 17 of the document, on advertising:

17. Advertisements

17.1 Some of the Services are supported by advertising revenue and may display advertisements and promotions. These advertisements may be targeted to the content of information stored on the Services, queries made through the Services or other information.

17.2 The manner, mode and extent of advertising by Google on the Services are subject to change without specific notice to you.

17.3 In consideration for Google granting you access to and use of the Services, you agree that Google may place such advertising on the Services.

Essentially, by creating a Google account, you are telling Google “Hey, look, you can use any information you gather from me to sell to advertisers!” And if you use Google+ as you would any other social network, you are giving Google information about your lifestyle which is information advertisers eat up. But the most unsettling thing, is that you are giving Google information about your friends (the people that are supposed to trust you) so that they can potentially be advertised to more effectively. Allow me to explain.

“Circles” is arguably the most unique feature to Google+, compared to the top social networks. At its core, Circles is a way to categorize your friends so that when you send messages which are relevant to a certain group (Circle), only that group sees it. For example, if you have a slew of graphic designers as friends, and categorize them into a “Graphic Design” circle, you can target your design-related messages to them. Conceptually it isn’t a terrible idea, but as someone I’ve discussed this with said, Circles is “clinical”, which is an accurate assessment.

What’s scary, however, is that Google collects this information. These aren’t my words, just scroll back to the first quote in this entry. By categorizing your friends into circles, you are telling Google what their individual interests are. And when your friends categorize you into circles, they’re telling Google what your interests are. Google can tie all of this information to users’ Google accounts, and can potentially deliver unparalleled targeted ads. Using friends to give friends’ information to Google to sell to advertisers; Genius.

To Google’s credit, a means to opt out of “internet-based advertising in web browsers” exists, albeit slightly hidden. Once signed in, from the Google+ home page, these are the steps (links one must go through) to get there:

1. Settings >
2. Profile and privacy >
3. (Scroll down)
4. Go to Privacy Center >
5. Advertising >
6. Opt out >

(To save you time, here’s a direct link.)

The problem, however, is after selecting to opt out of “internet-based advertising in web browsers”, users are presented this message:

Opting out of the DoubleClick cookie means that Google’s AdSense partners, DoubleClick, and certain Google services using the DoubleClick cookie will know you have opted out of the cookie and will not attempt to assign other DoubleClick cookies in the future. You will see the same number of ads as before, but they may not be as relevant when you opt out.

Meaning, you can’t really opt out of seeing ads, despite the lead-on. What this does is ensure that you can’t be targeted with ads by way of tracking cookies. And if you use other web browsers, and/or other computers with other web browsers, you need to opt out on each one if you really hate DoubleClick. And in the end, it doesn’t address the Google+ privacy concerns presented here, as all the information Google collects on the front is tied to Google accounts; Cookies be damned when people can be targeted just by being signed in.

Obviously much of this entry is speculation, and take that fact into consideration; I don’t have evidence that Google will use the information it gathers from Google+ users to sell to advertisers. What I know, and all anyone outside of Google can know, is that Google will collect a shitton of information from Google+ users, and claims it will use that information to improve Google services. As confirmed by Google’s privacy statement, targeted advertisements are one of its services. And according to Google’s terms of service, by using Google services you consent to being hit with targeted ads, which is how Google makes money.

Essentially, I advise against using Google+. Aside from there already being working social networks out there, that are arguably much better, Google just isn’t a company you can trust. In life, we tend to question why something is free if it is. With Google, people don’t tend to question its motives, and instead think “Free is free”, which is unfortunate. Today it’s okay for friends to supply each others’ information to Google to do whatever it wants with, largely unknowingly. If that’s okay today, what will be okay tomorrow? And will you go along with that too?

Credit where credit is due, the article Google’s Business Model: YOU Are the Product (via Daring Fireball) is what got me thinking about this topic.

For fun, here’s Facebook’s advertising policy:

We never share your personal information with our advertisers. Facebook’s advert targeting is done entirely anonymously. If advertisers select demographic targeting for their adverts, Facebook automatically matches those adverts to the appropriate audience. Advertisers only receive anonymous data reports.

Who you are going to side with?

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