Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Google's Unjust Privacy Policy

Jason E. Summers


April 20, 2012

By Jason E. Summers

Google's new privacy policy, enacted March 1, set off another wave of public discussion in the already on-going debate over web-service providers' ability to gather information about users and the providers' corresponding obligation to ensure the privacy of those users.

Under the new policy, Google combines personal information gathered across services including YouTube, Gmail and the Google search engine into a single aggregate profile. Information gathered from past searches may be combined with information contained in e-mails, contact lists, and video-viewing histories. Provided that users are logged in while Google services are being used, their aggregate profile will incorporate data from all those accounts with which they are associated.

I have written previously that responsible technology addresses real needs, adheres to normative requirements for ensuring the common good, and justifies anticipated harms with anticipated gains. By this standard, Google's new policy falls short.

Collection of personal information over the internet is prone toward violations of privacy and creating unjust power relations in which the few hold great power over the many, as Stephen V. Monsma and his co-authors presciently noted. As such, concern over Google's data-collection and data-retention policies are not new. And, in fact, the new policy improves on some of Google's previous policies. They are more transparent in disclosing collection practices and more just in providing users better control over the collection process.

But privacy advocates have expressed concern over Google's current failure to provide a simple and universal means to opt out. Owners of phones based on the Google Android platform, for example, cannot opt out without disabling their phones. Similarly, opt-out options are nonexistent for Gmail and other services that require login. In response to rising concerns, the Federal Trade Commission issued recommendations for protecting consumer privacy at the end of March, among which provision for a simple and universal opt-out mechanism is prominent.

While Google has emphasized benefits the aggregate profile will offer to users through better customization of search results and advertising, its primary ethical justification is the notion of voluntary consent. And, unlike Facebook with respect to its poorly received privacy-policy changes, Google has taken measures to ensure informed consent from all users in what they have termed “the most extensive notification effort in Google's history.”

Yet, even by the measure of consent, Google's actions may be insufficient. The ability of users to offer voluntary consent is hampered by numerous constraints, such as the costs associated with changing to a new cell phone device. Likewise, though alternatives to Gmail are available, changing e-mail addresses may necessitate substantial effort, as banks and other service providers must be formally notified.

Moreover, Google services to be affected by the new policy are available to users as young as 13, for whom it may be inappropriate to consider consent binding. In a conversation on NPR, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA) raised this concern, which he intends to address through legislation (H.R. 1895) that would prohibit for-profit providers of web services from collecting information about minors for marketing purposes.

While Markey grounds his objection to the new privacy policy primarily in Google's failure to allow more than all-or-nothing consent, his objections raise another issue. “What business does Google have,” he asked, “to not give a parent any rights whatsoever to opt out, to say I don't want my kid's information to be aggregated this way to market back to my kid.” Indeed, as the Center for Public Justice Guideline on the Family argues, the family “should be recognized in public law as an institution in its own right” with unique identity and rights. Neither consent of children nor rights of individuals or corporations can trump the responsibility and right parents have to determine what information is gathered about their children.

As web services become increasingly pervasive and interconnected, we, as Christians, would do well to consider how these new technologies can best interface with the institutions of society in ways that preserve and uphold justice.

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”