What Google should have done

Over the last week a small storm has broken out over the fact that Google has admitted to circumventing the security settings when Apple computer and iPhone users browsed the internet using Apple’s web browser, Safari. 

The original story broke here in the Wall Street Journal. John Gruber, who authors one of the web’s most admired blogs, summarises the issue in this blog post before going on to explore how wrong Google’s actions were and whether any of the blame should actually lay with Apple - which is the defence being mounted by some Google supporters.

Mr Gruber writes:

What the WSJ discovered is that Google (and a few other ad networks) found a way to store third-party cookies in Safari and Mobile Safari even when the option was set only to accept cookies from visited websites, as it is by default.

No one is criticizing Google for using third-party tracking cookies in general. No one. What’s being criticized is Google devising and implementing a method to store third-party cookies in web browsers which are set not to accept third-party cookies. It didn’t happen by accident. Google wrote code specifically to circumvent this setting in Safari.

There is no doubt that what Google did was wrong. How wrong? Imagine this: 

Your local supermarket, Tesco or Walmart or whomever, runs a long term promotion where customers that sign up to their loyalty card get a 5% discount. In exchange for giving them your details and allowing them to track your shopping behaviour, they lower the price and they fund this discount through selling your data to advertisers and suppliers. Now imagine, that without telling anyone, they started giving the same discount to those that had opted to keep their data private and not to join the loyalty card. For these customers they then follow them home, secretly collect their details, capture their habits and sell this data to suppliers. Imagine that they did this in a routine and systematic way, for every customer that said they would rather not be in the loyalty scheme, every time they shopped.

If this hypothetical scenario happened at any major retailer, there would be an enormous outcry followed by prosecutions and recriminations. People would be fired and people would probably go to jail. 

What Google did was the e-commerce equivalent and there are two reasons why the outcry has been so much more muted. Firstly and mainly, because the majority of people don’t yet conceptualise the issues as clearly as they can for traditional physical retailers. Secondly, our sense of the rights, wrongs and value of privacy in the web space is much more under developed than it is for the physical world.

There is no doubt that what Google did was wrong but an equally interesting question is what should Google have done?

When they discovered that Apple’s default security settings prevented them from tracking customer behaviour in a way that allowed them to sell that data most efficiently, they shouldn’t have secretly written code to get around it. They should have done this.

The first time a person tried to conduct a Google search on an Apple computer, a dialogue box should appear that says:

Your web searches are free because we sell your data to advertisers to subsidise the cost of this service. Your computer presently has settings that prevent us from doing this most effectively. Do you wish to:

(A) Turn off these privacy settings, allow us to track your behaviour and give you free web searches.

(B) Keep your privacy settings on and subscribe at $10 a month to use our search service.

Google (and others) sense of overwhelming entailment to user data is driven by what they give in return. We have quickly lost sight of just how valuable it is to have an index of the entire worlds knowledge at our finger tips. 30 years ago, the same access to that data, at the same speed and accuracy, would have cost each user millions of dollars each time. Now we expect it for free but in reality it costs and it costs a lot.

It will remain free at the point of access but it’s time for the Google’s of this world to have a more upfront and honest conversation about what the real cost is to each of us.