Google Privacy #SMX Roundtable: The Good, The Bad, The Ubiquitous

Posted in Google, SMX East

#SMX East 2011 hosted a lively and stirring debate about the ubiquitous Google as a good “steward” of the world’s users’ and marketers’ online data. Which Way Google’s roundtable panel, led by Chris Sherman, included In the Plex author Steven Levy who has had the rare pleasure of infiltrating the notorious Google campus, Jeff Jarvis advocate of “publicness” and author of What Would Google Do? and Public Parts, and last but not least, the man with the microscope on Google- Marc Rotenberg, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). Read on for the incendiary debate.

Chris Sherman: Is Google making us smarter, or dumber?

Steven Levy: It’s beside the point. Technology changes us. It’s about us adapting to the technology. Google makes it easier to get by if you’re dumb, though.

Marc Rotenberg: Teachers/Parents freaked out about Wikipedia – but it was interactive, so if something was wrong, you change it. Search engines are essentially the same.

Jeff Jarvis: We ARE smarter. We are more fact-based. Now, if you want a fact, you see it in .2 seconds, opposed to going to the library.

Sherman: Think about the gas you’re not using by NOT having to drive to the library. In regards to privacy, Google is doing similar things as Facebook. There is a difference between gathering data and using that data: what’s your take? IS Google a good steward of our data?

Rotenberg: There should be a high legal standard. The government shouldn’t be able to just go to Google and get whatever info they want. We (EPIC) don’t think the government should be setting privacy standards. We’ve looked into the relationship between Google and NSA which they could “neither confirm nor deny.”

Levy: Gmail was a turning point in Google and privacy. The Internet makes a lot of things available/accessible & Google is the instrument. If you Google yourself & a DUI comes up in the first 10 results, that’s like someone putting something on your resume. (ouch) General users can’t do much about it, unless you’re an SEO specializing in reputation management. Google should take more ownership of that problem. There is no solution to that. But Google should take ownership. That’s the core privacy problem with Google. For Facebook, it’s different. Facebook encourages you to put info there to be more accessible.

Rotenberg: Quick note: individuals in Spain have ordered Google to take some personal information down which is still in progress.

Jarvis: I want to re-cast this discussion: There’s a notion of “public-ness.” Essentially there’s a Guttenberg press in everyone’s hand. We see this benefit the unrest in the Arab nations with social media. People have the notion of the “right to be forgotten” – do you tell a newspaper to take something out of the archives? Do you tell me to forget a memory? I think we have to start here with what people are doing. There are 750 million people on Facebook – willingly, sharing and posting. If you’re able to take down searches earlier, we wouldn’t be able to track the Flu or other epidemics which has great value. We should tread very carefully in saying what should be public.

Sherman: Google provides very sophisticated tools. Google is being proactive (giving people control over their data), but are they doing enough?

Jarvis: Well, I talk about you on my website. You would call that your data, but it’s not, it’s mine.

Sherman: What about actual tools e.g. deleting emails/exporting?

Levy: I think Internet companies do more than most. There are full-time employees whose job is privacy. I take issue with Double Click in AdSense for the “benefit” of relative ads. You may get a better ad, in exchange for Google’s servers gather data. I think if more people knew about that trade off they may prefer to see a less relevant ad.

Rotenberg: I am becoming more of a skeptic. When it comes to privacy with Google & Facebook nothing is stable.

Sherman: Google has acquired the technology for facial recognition (Google Goggles) Facebook did this too, will this be part of a day to day?

Rotenberg: Google Goggles would cross the creepy line, while Facebook has embraced this.

Levy: Google Goggles – they didn’t think it’d be a problem (in development), but the perception of the problem was there & they didn’t go for it. Google is happy Facebook did it first instead.

Jarvis: Facebook has recently added new controls similar to Google+. Now photos that are tagged must be approved. You can now choose who to share updates, photos, etc with. This gives us more control than anywhere else on the Internet. Facial recognition can be good, for example, they used it in the UK to identify terrorists before they get to the gate.

Rotenberg: But they used facial recognition in the UK to identify political protesters…

Jarvis: The technology is neutral, how we use it can either be good or bad. We should not assume it’s bad, and thus ban it and lose what can be good.

Rotenberg: We must have a discussion about who’s using this technology and to what purpose.

Levy: What about Street View?  The simple idea of showing a public street seems to us an invasion of privacy. We think about it in the negative case: such as burglars casing a house they may not have seen.

Rotenberg: What if a large French company using cars to photograph streets and use that information? We wouldn’t perceive that as OK.

Jarvis: It’s a matter of principle. They called Google street view a violation – I view this as: it’s from a public street, and a public view. If you tell Google they can’t take a picture of a public place from a public space, are you going to tell a journalist they can’t too?

Levy: Look at the bigger picture – view it as the capability of the Internet to have a huge archive. If it wasn’t Google, there’d be another company.

Sherman: Shift from privacy, let’s talk about legal issues. Which is most important? What are the risks?

Levy: It’s already changed how we use Google. They’re focused with how they do algorithms. It’s serious stuff & you have to take your hat off to Microsoft & AT&T for bringing the legal concerns up. Google has to take it very seriously. They’re sending Eric Schmidt to congress next week. I think that there are important issues that the SEO community deals with every day with the anti-trust thing. What right does Google have to set its algorithms? A judge said it’s a protected opinion – like movie reviews. That opinion however is under attack because Google is perceived to have too much market power.

Rotenberg: I think there’s a lot on Google’s plate when it comes to legal issues. The Washington office is growing to no surprise. But take a step back, what is Google worried about? Monopoly & anti-trust issues because Google dominates so much across the board. That’s the difficult problem. It’s hard to escape their success.

Jarvis: We love success then fear success. Google becomes aware later of the problem of this. It’s portrayed as Godzilla & they perceive themselves as Snuffleupagus. If Google comes to a company & says they’re violating rules of spamming & they say “No, we’re a directory.” in this case Google has the power of god to wipe the company out of the SERPs. But there’s always an alternative.

Levy: There was a time when Google was down and the traffic for yahoo shot straight up. If Google uses the power of god, takes away a search result too often, people will go to competitors.

Sherman: This concept, search neutrality, looking at Google, there’s no yard stick from the personalization.

Jarvis: That kills the SEO industry because you can’t prove the lift/ROI. But this goes back to privacy: they’re trying to have users to generate signals.

Rotenberg: Coming back to the organization of search – we filed a new complaint to FTC which looked at the changes in the search algorithm pre-Google acquisition of YouTube and post acquisition of YouTube. We look at the default ranking factors of YouTube before acquisition which were: hits, then user rankings (stars), then relevance. So, there’s two objective metrics then a subjective. Post acquisition, relevance became the default. This is internal proprietary measure is subjective. For example, post the change, if you did a search for “privacy” five of the top ten are generated by Google. Before EPIC ranked in the top four. That use of search algorithms can bias public access.

Jarvis: But pre-acquisition YouTube search SUCKED. You can only guess at the motives.

Levy: I wouldn’t be shocked to learn, the company that values relevance so highly, made it the primary factor. It could also just be their algorithms.

Rotenberg: But it’s their algorithm.

Jarvis: This is conspiracy theory here.

Levy: Isn’t this interesting that Google’s privacy stuff comes up. So if we suspect something is up, do we have the right to demand seeing Google’s algorithms? That’s a big question.

Rotenberg: We were a competitor in this space and all our stuff just dropped.

Sherman: With Larry coming back as CEO – Google has killed more products in the last month. Is Google changing direction? Or Larry re-asserting control?

Levy: Not a new direction, but trying to get back to more original direction. It’s a mixed bag of stuff they discontinued in their spring cleaning. Larry wants a coherent strategy and new products, but is trimming the fat. Google can’t operate as a clunky bureaucracy.

Jarvis: Question for you, Levy, I’m curious about innovation inside and outside. On the inside there was WAVE, you spend time on that and it’s gone.

Levy: For certain projects, Google is still a welcoming company of innovation. I think through history you see the risk of acquisitions. Google’s unique – they made great acquisitions like YouTube, Android and DoubleClick. YouTube hasn’t been profitable, but what would you rather have? Groupon or YouTube?

Rotenberg: What about Zagats?

Levy: They tried to use reviews from Yelp and went too far and got spanked for that. It was Marissa’s mobile group who bought Zagats. The challenge will be to keep up the user participation & the culture of Zagat. It fits very, very neatly into Google’s operation.

Jarvis: They view Zagats as a platform, not a content company. The problem you come back to is favoring their own content. So if they treat it like content, it’s danger-danger, but they see it as a platform. Content, would affect their ability to be neutral and fair.

Sherman: A huge initiative is Google+: people call it a mash-up of Facebook and Twitter. Will this go the way of Orkut, Buzz or WAVE?

Rotenberg: If you want search it’s Google, for social it’s Facebook.

Jarvis: I don’t know that Google+ is a social network. I think Facebook is about relationships. Twitter is for broadcasting. Google+ is about sharing. Though, I think people interpret it differently. I was seeing the wall as a place to publish, however my son saw it as having conversations in new and different ways. Just in the use of it: twitter is fundamentally different about being more live. But I get better, deeper conversations on Google+ than on my blog. They also don’t attract as many trolls. Broadcast + conversation + social = Google+


Levy: First, Google+ is not a Facebook killer and they don’t think they’re going to knock off Facebook. They just want to be a part of the equation. Google+ wants to be more real-time, for example, video hangouts. Second, people were unhappy with how Facebook made them share. Third, we haven’t really seen what Google+ really is. We’re on the front-end of Google being more social.

Rotenberg: It’s like an operating system for the internet. Is that where Google would like to take this?

Levy: We just haven’t seen the full integration.

Sherman: Favorite Google anecdote?

Levy: One day in October 2009 – Google does this thing: Google Product Strategy. It’s a big meeting every week, top executives are there… these people from different groups come and show new products. I sat in on a couple. On this day: it was the YouTube team. They showed numbers that he cannot talk about. It was a very Men In Black memory eraser moment. The thing before me was Google video. A new product. And the thing after was Google Goggles. Before the meeting began, Eric came in and had just steamed a CBS tennis match and was really excited about it. He told the YouTube team and that’s part of the reason why YouTube is doing more streaming.

Rotenberg: As busy as we are raising concerns, some of my closest friends work there. At a personal level, I have enormous respect for abilities and achievements. From the Washington point of view, we need to take a step back and ask hard questions.

Jarvis: My book was different than Levy’s. I didn’t want to sign the NDA at the door. I was using Google as a foil of the changing world. I did a talk at Google and there are rocket scientists there, telling me how full of shit I was. Google is a place that defaults to SMART. When the default in so many companies feels like stupid.

Rotenberg: Google’s Achilles heel is its hubris. Google said: don’t be evil – really they meant, don’t be Microsoft. With Microsoft it was about arrogance. Google has tobe careful about over-extending.

Sherman: In five years, what will we be talking about?

Levy: How to get back from space in the Google spaceship?

Rotenberg: Who’s going to be running YouTube? And search?

Jarvis: I think ubiquity of connectivity is going to have a change in society that’s bigger than Google itself. The internet of things, things connected all over. But, Google is not invincible.

Sherman: Is Google’s biggest risk competition? Or doing something internally?

Rotenberg: That’s a great question. Its greatest adversary is itself.

Levy: Agree. In dealing with its size & trying to not be bureaucratic.


— Thanks to the panelists for a fabulous discussion. Stay tuned at aimClear blog for more #SMX East 2011 coverage 🙂 .

Photo credit: CreativeCommons