P stands for Privacy, but Google’s new parent company, Alphabet may not care for such details
On Monday, Google surprised the world by announcing it was to reshuffle the way the company works, by giving itself a parent company and giving that new parent company some of Google’s assets. Strictly speaking, Google is now a brand operated by Alphabet, and operations like Nest are now operated by Alphabet too. Larry Page and Sergey Brin will step up to take control of the new company, and Sundar Pichai, the man the tech world is currently calling the ‘rags-to-riches’ story at Google, will become CEO of Google. They’ve even launched their own domain for the new company, Alphabet’s website being www.abc.xyz.
They claim that Google has never been ‘a conventional company’ and they talk about how Google often does things that at first people think is crazy, like Google Maps, but today millions, if not billions, of us use them, and so they’ve been excited about this potential from the start. Alphabet is one of these companies too.
Google as a company has often fallen into cases against it, be it copyright (like in the case where Nickelodeon owners Viacom tried to sue You Tube), or taxes, where right here in the UK, Google is constantly being quizzed over its tax evasion tactics (somehow being able to get away with it). Its European headquarters by the way are in Ireland, so all sales and licences go there.
But what about privacy? Right here in the UK, DRIP, or the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, is going through Parliament, which would see internet and mobile providers forced to retain customers’ browsing history and activity and provide this data, on demand, to the police, government and over 600 other public authorities. William Hague summed up the attitude of the government in one sentence: ‘If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’.
But we all know that Google hasn’t exactly got the best track record for privacy in the world either.
Back in 2013, Edward Snowden disclosed information to the Guardian and the Washington Post about PRISM, an NSA mass surveillance scheme which saw the NSA retain data from nine of America’s biggest internet providers. Despite the US insisting that civilian data cannot be retained without a warrant, Edward Snowden’s documents point a hefty finger of blame at Google for being one of the PRISM compliant companies, along with Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook. Google consistently denies being involved in PRISM, going so far as to say: ‘We await the US Government’s response to our petition to publish more national security request data, which will show that our compliance with American national security laws falls far short of the wild claims still being made in the press’.
Google’s advertising practices have also fallen into the limelight. Ever go onto You Tube, watch a video and an advert for a shop really close to you pops up? What about if you look on Amazon for that one thing you really want, and all of a sudden the site you’re visiting runs adverts about the exact same thing? Whilst Google doesn’t sell your data to anyone (they claim), they use your data to run ‘interest specific’ adverts for you. If you have a Google account, you can choose how much data they use about you for adverts, but they don’t allow you to stop them using your location, and if you use Gmail, they can scan your inbox and target those adverts you sometimes see at the top of your inbox. Google explains a bit more about their advertising practices here and here, but it’s still a little concerning, especially when they say they keep records of cookie information (cookies being little text files on your computer that send off data to people like Google about your internet activity) for up to 18 months.
As anyone knows though, it’s not just Google. Yahoo announced back in May last year that it would be dropping support for Do Not Track requests in browsers, in favour of advancing its personalised experience. The same goes for services like Google Now and Siri: you sacrifice some of your privacy for a more you-friendly experience. The blog post, which is ironically written by the Privacy Team, explains you still get options, but they still want your data.
So, Alphabet. Even though you don’t have the alphabet.com domain (that’s held by BMW) or the @alphabet Twitter handle (held by a father in Cleveland, Ohio), you possess the power, as the holding company for the internet giant Google, to drastically change the scene of the internet. For years, Google and the other internet giants like Yahoo, have been making tiny changes that make it harder to change privacy settings. And I think we can all see how doing this over and over again, results in frustration until one day, nobody bothers because it’s too much hassle. That is precisely what Google and the rest are hoping for.
Alphabet, you’re run by the same people that ran Google. But these days where you own and have influence over so much of our data, it’s time you started respecting the people that use and own that data. You’re new on the block, but Google’s not poor, so by extension you’re not going to be either. And if you have a problem with constant court rulings, with people going against you and your privacy settings, here’s a tip: listen to them.
Alphabet, because one day you’ll probably branch into methods of education or start the first virtual school, may I suggest one thing to you? Perhaps when you teach the toddlers of this world the alphabet, when you say ‘A is for Apple, B is for Balloon’, I’d urge you to say, ‘and P is for privacy’.