Our Data Buckets, Ourselves

All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome. — George Orwell

A Google real-name policy rolled out in conjunction with Google’s new social platform Google+ set off a barrage of protest from tech-culture activists. The web-enabled rage grew. A  wave of entitled cries to use whatever name one chose on a free service washed over the interwebs, beginning the “Nymwars.” Many wrote blog posts explaining why real-name policies are bad and how evil Google was for enforcing such a policy.

I don’t disagree with the tech-culture activists. I’m concerned about dissidents and whistle-blowers who without the freedom of anonymity will not risk expressing opposition to repressive governments, regimes and corporations. However, presenting the inability to use pseudonyms as the most serious problem with Google services is an example of egregious bike-shedding. The data representing how we move about in society that we regularly and willingly hand over to Google is a much more serious threat to privacy.

Bucket WallaThere is a dangerous misunderstanding about the non-paying user’s relationship to Google proliferated by the Nymwars. The idea that we as non-paying users have real power to affect a disruptive change to Google’s business model by “speaking up” is detrimental to real policy change. Google is not a FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) project.

As a non-paying user of Google products I am not a customer, I am a data-bucket. Google uses millions of data-buckets to provide a service to the company’s paying customers, advertisers. What is the best way to realize maximum return-on-investment of your advertising dollars? Access to really good data-buckets! I have to admit that when I think of Google’s use of non-paying users I can’t help but think in terms of the Matrix and that giant warehouse of human seed pods being harvested for energy. Stop for a moment and think about what is in your special Google data-bucket.  Here is mine:

  • My calendars. Who I meet and where I go and when I go there.
  • Email correspondences for the last 5 years.
  • Who is visiting the websites I manage.
  • My YouTube watching habits.
  • My search history.
  • Things I buy or organizations I donate to when I use Google Checkout.
  • Articles and items I read via Google Reader and with whom I share them.
  • My map history, my regular modes of transportation and where I travel.
  • How I use my smartphone and what apps I buy and download.
  • What I take photos of, how I take photos and how I use them.
  • What not Google websites I visit and log into using my Google account.
  • What groups I associate with  based on my memberships in Google Groups.
  • Who my friends, peers and acquaintances are and how I categorize them.

Looking at that list it appears I learned nothing from reading Orwell and Solzhenitsyn.

Unicorn Only available at first to an elite few, Google consistently entices us to put more data-types into our buckets with new free-as-in-beer (gratis not libre) services. Google’s product rollout strategy is brilliant, I love being one of the few who gets to preview and then dole out those initial invites to the sexy new Google service, often not even stopping to think about what kind of new and exciting data I’m placing for Google’s use into my bucket. And when I dole out that taste of new Google foo, I become a pusher for Google by doing my best to persuade my friends and family to add to their own data-buckets.

The way I use Google services is my choice. I also have the choice not to use Google’s services.  I understand that by using those free-as-in-beer services I agree to follow Google’s Terms of Service (TOS). A TOS that is exactly what I’d expect from a company that makes its revenue from advertising. To refuse to be aware and acknowledge that Google is a business and I as a non-paying user am a data-bucket not a customer is self-delusion, and it is not Google’s problem. Google does a better job than most in telling me how they are using my data, and making it easy for me to remove.  Transparency doesn’t change Google’s business model, nor does all the good work they do supporting important community and philanthropic projects.

It is my responsibility to be aware of how Google is using my data-bucket.  For example, governments often ask Google to provide access to data-buckets for investigations and Google often complies. The amassing of human behavioral data tied to individual entities by a private corporation is much more harmful to those with little political or social capital than the adoption of a real-name policy. Is it really a good plan to rely on Google long-term to do the right thing “just because” when it comes to protecting the less socially and economically powerful members of society?

White House Expecting Google to self-regulate when their primary revenue stream is based on good data-buckets is not a long-term solution to the data ownership and control problem.  The entities that need to regulate Google are governmental. Unless you can mobilize a significant portion of the data-buckets to empty themselves out, regulatory policy change is the only course of action, and in Europe that is starting to happen.

If we are really serious about the need for corporations like Google to eliminate real-name policies and protect our privacy, the people to petition are our elected representatives. Google does care about its public image and the company often does great things to spark innovation and support the innovators, but every non-paying user needs to understand Google’s primary loyalty is to its revenue stream. If we really want to change the way corporations handle data than there needs to be a change in regulatory policy, and affecting change in regulatory policy means looking outside our carefully constructed virtual echo-chambers.