Wednesday, March 07, 2012

If it Walks Like a Duck and it Quacks Like a Duck...

I remember clearly the first time I used Google. I sat down in front of a workstation in one of my school's many computer labs and immediately loaded up Yahoo, still the search engine of choice at the time. At least, I thought it was. As I looked along the row, I saw that all of my friends had loaded up a page with a white background, brightly coloured lettering and a search box. "What's that?" I asked. "Google". I typed the URL into the browser and the rest of the story could not be even remotely described as history.

Google became my default search engine, and not without reason. Before Google, I would use Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos, AskJeeves and AOL. All gave different results and all were equally bad. Google was just better.

Since that time, Google has come to dominate 'search', with over 60 percent market share in the US and a still higher percentage in much of Europe. The utility of Google meant that when people picked it as a search engine they tended to stick with it. I had certainly fallen into that pattern myself.

Not withstanding recent changes to Google's privacy policy, which will enable the company to share data across multiple platforms, the amount of personally identifiable information Google collects about its users has been a longstanding concern. I understand that Google does not share this data with third-parties (as is made clear in its Privacy Policy) but with Google Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google StreetView, Google Earth, Google Voice, Google Android, Google+ and more, the range of information to which Google has access is vast.

The major issue then is one of trust. Can Google be trusted to act responsibly with sensitive, personal and private information?

In 2010, Google admitted that its StreetView cars had "mistakenly" collected WiFi data from unsecured private networks. Then there was Google Buzz, which automatically made user's contacts public, and the Android GPS tracking controversy - both undertaken without users' permission - not to mention the cavalier way in which Larry Page managed the sensitive ownership and rights issues surrounding Google Books.

I understand that Google is a big company and that the top execs can't keep tight control over every aspect of its day-to-day operations. It could be argued that such "mistakes" or "leaks" are an intrinsic part of doing business on the web. Indeed, the most troubling aspect of the Google/Facebook business model is the 'normalisation' of universal surveillance and the idea that surrendering your privacy for a life inside of Foucault's Panopticon is a reasonable price to pay for free digital goods and services. I think users have a right to expect better from the company that adopted "don't be evil" as its unofficial corporate motto.

Luckily, alternatives are beginning to emerge.

DuckDuckGo could scarcely be clearer about the fact that it "does not collect or share personal information". Those few short words are the essence of the company's Privacy Policy, which includes a detailed technical description of why users should care. There are, of course, many more persuasive philosophical and political arguments why privacy is an essential aspects of Freedom, Liberty and Justice. I am not expert enough to know how Google and DuckDuckGo compare in terms of search (both are clearly at the higher end of the market), but, DuckDuckGo is right to recognise that user privacy is more important than search utility.

So, in the spirit of free enterprise advocated by Google Executive Chairman, Dr Eric Schmidt - when challenged on the issue of Google's market dominance and 'creepy' user profiling, Schmidt repeatedly counters that competition on the Internet is "only one click away" - I am exercising my consumer choice. Until Google acts in a way that accords user privacy the priority I believe it deserves, I will be using - If it Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck... - A description of the reasons why DuckDuckGo is preferable to Google for users who are concerned about online privacy


Blogger Paul said...

Never heard of them.

But while I use chrome as my preferred browser and gmail as my email provider (which probably means Google already know what I'm doing next week before even I do) - I shall join you in this noble quest (or statement).

(to publish comments on your blog I also have to use google to sign in since, you know, eblogger is owned by google too...)

4:56 AM


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