Google’s new privacy policy: quick solutions and long-term measures

Tomorrow Google starts with its new privacy policy and terms of service. “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read” Google clearly states on its website. While Google argues this concentration of privacy policies would result in a “simple product experience that does what you need”, criticism may be raised concerning fundamental socio-political implications this policy shift triggers. Google used links, search histories and click rates to personalize search results and – most of all – sponsored links in the past. From tomorrow onwards it will additionally integrate data collected from other services – including Google Mail, Google Maps, YouTube, the social networking site Google+ and many more – to target search results and ads to users’ interests and desires.

If you want to protect yourself from Google’s new privacy policy today is your last chance according to John Thomas Didymus from the Digital Journal. Just follow the instructions described in the article to delete your Google Browsing History, “along with any damning information therein”. Contrary to quick solutions offering individual opting-out strategies, however, long-term measures would be needed to seriously challenge a range of implications this policy shift triggers on a societal level, both globally and locally:

First, the increased collection and aggregation of users data on a global scale leads to even more localized and personalized search results, which may narrow or “censor” our web information landscape according to our own, local, (partly arbitrary) parameters. Second, the new privacy policy may be seen as yet another step into the direction of Google’s profit maximization. Global companies like Google create money by selling “user profiles” (generated from massive data collections) to advertising clients and hence turn both web information and users into a commodity. Finally, the new settings raise new privacy issues and data protection challenges on a local level, where stricter regulations exist than in the US. While corporate search engines succeed very well in localizing their products and services, local policy makers and data protection experts still seem to be overwhelmed by global developments in the information economy.

These tensions between global economic trends and local socio-political cultures and questions how to achieve long-term measures for creating a more sustainable future of search – specifially focusing on the Austrian context – lie at the heart of my new project “Glocal Search. Search engines at the intersection of global capitalism and local socio-political cultures”. This project will start tomorrow at the Institute of Technology Assessement (ITA), Austrian Academy of Sciences, in Vienna – at the same time as Google’s new privacy settings take effect. The project is funded by the Jubiläumsfonds of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank (OeNB), project number 14702. A detailed description of the project and “glocal” implications search engines pose will soon be published in the ITA newsletter (March issue). I will post the article on my blog once it has been put online. Further, I’ll put up a project page later this month. So stay tuned!

search engines matter

Finally, another article deriving from my PhD work has been accepted by a peer-review journal :) It’s the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) journal Policy and Internet. The article with the title “Search Engines Matter: From educating users towards engaging with online health information practices” will be published in May 2012, in the special issue on eHealth. I’d like to thank the guest editors Rik Crutzen and Gordon Gao, as well as the managing editor David Sutcliffe, who was a great help in the whole peer-review process! Further I’d like to thank my Viennese colleagues, who contributed to the empirical work for the article, my HUMlab colleagues for having supported me during my stay in Sweden, and Mike Frangos, who commented on earlier drafts of the paper and helped me with editing the English!!

I’ve posted the abstract below and will add the link to the article once it has been put online.

While the internet is often discussed as empowering or endangering patients due to broadening access to medical and health-related information, little is known about the way patients actually get informed about medical conditions and how the technology shapes their practices. This article draws on 40 user observations and 40 qualitative interviews to explore how users employ the web to obtain knowledge about a chronic disease in the Austrian context. Following concepts from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) it elaborates how users’ individual medical preferences and search engines’ mechanisms of pre-filtering information co-shape online health information practices. This analysis exemplifies that search engines are no passive intermediaries, but rather actively shape how users browse through, select and evaluate health information in the context of their own bodies of knowledge. Accordingly, new skills are required on the part of users, but also on the part of medical professionals and policy makers. Both policy makers and doctors are invited to engage with users’ highly individual search practices and establish more dialogue-oriented and technology-focused health policy measures, rather than trying to educate users with standardized quality criteria for websites not responding to users’ online routines and needs, as will be finally concluded.