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Google and the speed of privacy change

Big companies may not be able to issue software patches quickly. But they sure can change their policies in pretty much an instant, argues Simon Brew…

It’s often been said that one of the benefits of open source is the speed of change, or at least the potential of it. That there’s no waiting for a committee, no line manager to approve expenditure, and no exhaustive wait for no determinable reason. Proprietary software, it’s argued, is just the opposite. Everything takes ages, all the more ironic given the financial outlay needed to get your hands on the tools in the first place.

Life is never quite that straightforward, of course, but there’s still an obviously quicker reaction from a community of enthusiasts than there is a big corporation, which has to tick a whole different set of boxes.

But then, something happens that reminds you just how quickly large organisations can move should they really want to. In this case, it’s the changes brought about by Google, as it sought to merge lots of its existing privacy policies into one document.

It’s an admirable goal that Google had, here. After all, if you read the spiel that’s come out of Google’s headquarters on the matter, it appears an act of selflessness, the ilk of which should be encourage. Google has done it all for us, it’s going to make everything so much easier and less confusing, and the world will probably turn in a much more satisfying manner as a consequence. Thank you, Google.

Thankfully, better people than I have been dissecting the ramifications of the changes that Google has brought in. What intrigued me, though, was that it all happened so quickly.

Obviously, lots of expensive legal people earned their cash before Christmas, making sure as much as possible was watertight. But for us end users, the changes seemed to be sprung out of nowhere. A major privacy policy change, affecting over 70 different services, and dealing with the tracking of our online activity, was sprung on us in January, and enacted on 1st March. We had eight weeks at best to digest everything, and realise that there was no way we could opt out. It felt pretty much take it or leave it.

There, in one example, is just how fast a big firm can move if it wants to, although in this instance, Google may yet regret moving with such apparent haste. The European Union has already questioned the legality of what’s happened, and several other official bodies are believed to be poking their nose in, too. And rightly so.

The perception is that because so much of what Google does is free, that it’s open source, and that it should be bracketed in with something like the Linux kernel as a gift to us all. Common sense quickly tells you otherwise. Google’s advertising platform, bringing in tens of billions of dollars of revenue for the firm every year, is set to be a major beneficiary of the policy changes, especially now it can gleam data from lots of places, under the umbrella of one policy. From an end user’s point of view, it’s all much easier to understand, though. As, no doubt, will the targeted ads that suddenly are about to become yet more specific.

If you watched the final episode of Sherlock series two, broadcast earlier this year, you may recall the notion that the sleuth’s foe, Moriarty, chose to hide himself in plain sight. Google’s privacy changes have done the same thing. And rather than allow us to digest and debate them – which most users wouldn’t have done – they appear to have been driven in with the aid of a battering ram, and an ethos of we’re big, so we can do it. All wrapped up in reasonable language, of course.

Two things, then. If big companies want to do something fast, it’s fairly clear that they can. And more than ever, the transparency involved in pure open source has rarely been more important. Type that into Google and let them read it…

How to opt out
If you want to limit what Google can see about you, then go into your Google Account Settings page, and you’ll find an option for View, enable or disable web history.