REBOOT

01.30.12

Google Targets Rival Facebook With Tough New Privacy Policies

Whatever happened to 'don't be evil'? Google has adopted new policies aimed at giving itself an edge over its rivals. You got a problem with that? You’re free to leave.

Last year, just after he became CEO of Google, Larry Page sought out a meeting with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, asking for advice. Jobs told Page that Google needed more focus. Jobs told Page to pick a few big products to promote and toss out the rest, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs.

Page took Jobs’s advice to heart and has spent the past year getting everyone at Google focused on a handful of initiatives, most notably the Android mobile operating system and the Google+ social network. Page has also been talking about aesthetics and the need to make things more “beautiful.” That’s pure Apple, and a big change from the old Google, where products were created by engineers, and looked it.

But I wonder if Jobs didn’t also tell Page to let go of Google’s naive and ridiculous “Don’t be evil” mantra, or at least to stop feeling constrained by some techie version of the Boy Scouts Code that prevents Google from competing against opponents (read: Facebook) that have no problem embracing stuff that Google considered “evil.”

Because in recent weeks Google has taken a sudden turn away from its goody-two-shoes rhetoric and implemented policies that clearly are intended to advantage itself—and which clearly contradict the code of conduct Google once claimed to follow.

One example is a new privacy policy in which Google will share data across more than 60 Web services and not let users opt out.

That move should boost Google’s business by enabling it to gather more user information and deliver more targeted advertising, the way Facebook does.

But it has stirred up criticism and concern from techies and members of Congress who worry that Google is trampling on people’s privacy in order to wring more money out of users.
 
Responding in a blog post, Google Privacy Policy Manager Betsy Masiello said Google just wants to simplify its policies and isn’t collecting any more information than it was before. (What’s changed is that Google now shares information from one service, like YouTube, with another, like Google+.)

Masiello says there are ways to limit the data Google collects in some of its services, and that, finally, “you can use as much or as little of Google as you want.”

That last bit is the key thing, and it can be translated into this: These are our new rules, and if you don’t like them, stop using our product. If the nice folks in Washington, D.C., have a problem with us, they can send over a subpoena.

This is the tough and unapologetic new face that Google presents to the world, and make no mistake, this combative attitude is pure Larry Page. Page, a Google cofounder, has a reputation for being incredibly competitive and ambitious, so much so that some observers have compared him to Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates.

This month, Google set off another firestorm when it rolled out a new service called “Search plus Your World,” which ties the Google+ social network to Google search results, and promotes pages from Google+ above pages from rival networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Google says the idea is just to deliver better, more relevant search results by incorporating information from people you know.

What’s really going on is that Google is sick of getting stonewalled by Facebook, which won’t share its user data on the Web. So Google has decided that if Facebook won’t share data, then fine, Google will build a rival to Facebook and use its dominant position in the search market (roughly two-thirds of all U.S. searches are done on Google) to promote that new network. So far Google+ has attracted 90 million members.

In a sense Google has no choice but to do this. Facebook has in effect been building its own private Internet, one with more than 800 million people. Facebook’s idea was to draw those people away from the open Web, where Google is king, and keep them on Facebook, where Facebook (and only Facebook) could study their behavior and sell them ads. That’s great for Facebook, but potentially devastating for Google.

For years Google sat around complaining that Facebook’s closed model wasn’t fair. Now Page apparently has decided that if Google wants to survive, it should stop whining and instead start doing some bare-knuckle brawling of its own.

It’s a risky strategy, since Google has already landed in hot water with federal regulators and agreed to a settlement over privacy complaints. But Page probably figures he has no choice.

Larry Page apparently has decided that if Google wants to survive it should stop whining and start doing some bare-knuckle brawling of its own.

“Don’t be evil” was never Google’s official motto. For that matter, it was never something the company really lived up to. Consider that a few months ago Google paid $500 million to settle charges it knowingly ran illegal drug ads, and that Page himself was aware of what the company was doing, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But now Google is not even pretending. In a way that’s refreshing. Whether it will work, however, remains to be seen.