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If you are online, you can’t escape Google’s myriad of ways it tracks you, but you can leave your ISP.
A famous 2009 Google Blog post boasted that: “Google is not the Hotel California — you can check out any time you like and you CAN, in fact, leave!”
Since Google chose that apt metaphor, and boasted about how easy Google makes it to “check out” your private data and “leave” to a competitor, lets test if you can ever “in fact leave” Google-Eye’s pervasively invasive online surveillance — from a privacy perspective.
But first, why is this point a relevant exercise for people who care about privacy at this particular point in time?
Right now in the U.S., the FCC is trying to justify differential treatment of ISPs and dominant edge platforms like Google in its Title II privacy proceeding and its AllVid set top box proceeding, by claiming that ISPs are more “sticky” and harder to leave than dominant edge platforms like Google.
The Senate Judiciary Committee last week heard testimony from the FCC that: “…we can choose not to visit a website or not to sign up for a social network, or we can choose to drop one and switch to another in milliseconds. But broadband service is fundamentally different. Once we subscribe to an ISP—for our home or for our smartphone—most of us have little flexibility to change our mind or to do so quickly.”
The FCC Chairman also said: “I go to WebMD, and WebMD collects information on me. I go to Weather.com, and Weather.com collects information on me,” he said. “I go to Facebook, and Facebook collects information on me. But only one entity collects all of that information, that I’m going to all of those different sites, and can turn around and monetize it.”
I don’t challenge that there is a real time hassle to switch ISPs.
What I do respectfully challenge is that first, Google essentially doesn’t “collect all of that information” because they do (see here), and second, that Google somehow is easy to escape,when it comes to collecting one’s private information, because it is not, as I will prove below.
Let’s return to Google as a “Hotel California” where “you can check out but never leave.”
Google likes to present the mirage of freedom by touting that they allow users to leave by easily exporting their private information to take elsewhere. As with most things Google, that’s the truth, but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
One can take a copy of one’s data, and leave, but Google generally retains a copy of it all and can use it for all sorts of purposes. Tellingly, Google’s Cloud Platform director Tom Kershaw told the New York Times last year: “Never delete anything, always use data – it’s what Google does…”
Most importantly, when you leave Google, it can still track most all you do. How?
First, if you surf the web, you need to know that ~98% of the top ~15 million websites use Google Analytics so most everywhere you go on the net, Google can track you.
Second, two million of the most popular websites use the Google YouTube Display Ad Network to serve you video and other display ads so they can track you.
Third, 1.2 million of the top websites about physical locations like stores, restaurants, hotels etc. have Google Maps embedded by default enabling Google to track your location and intent.
Fourth, even if you are not one of the billion plus Gmail users, Google’s Gmail algorithm secretly reads your emails that are sent to Gmail users.
Finally, if you use any type of smartphone 93% of all mobile searches use Google Search because it is installed by default by manufacturers on Android and Apple smartphones/tablets, and if you are the half of U.S. users who use Android, the dominant licensable operating system in the U.S., multiple Google mobile services track your usage and location in order to function as designed.
In sum, if you are a consumer who values their privacy and seeks to control the use of their private information, it is likely a more involved ongoing hassle to quit all Google services and avoid Google’s ongoing pervasive tracking of non-Google users, than it is to leave an ISP.
That’s because once the time hassle of leaving your ISP is done, the privacy concern is done. However, if one tries to leave Google-Eye’s persistent surveillance, the hassle and switching cost of proactively protecting one’s private information from Google is not over, it persists indefinitely.
If you want to learn about all the things one has to do to fully quit Google’s omnifarious products and services, see these accounts of what it involves to leave Google completely from: Slate, TechRepublic, ieee.org, MacWorld, PCWorld, Time, and MakeUseOf.com.
Simply, with Google you may be able to check out, but when you think you’ve left them, they still secretly follow you most wherever you go online.
Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an emergent enterprise risk consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Google competitors, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google and also before the relevant House oversight subcommittee on Google’s privacy problems.