Resisting the Panopticon: Our Policies Change

Google's new networkIn yesterday’s post about Google’s announced service changes, titled A Panopticon Matures, we pointed out that starting March 1st the search giant will consolidate information about online activities across all proprietary platforms and fold it into real-name Google profiles. Known as ‘One policy, one Google experience,’ the new service changes are intended to create a social search experience that “does what you need, when you want it to.” Given those changes, we’re making some under-the-hood changes in how we interact with users. Hint: We’re not doing evil.Google logoGoogle’s service changes are extensive and have already generated considerable consternation from privacy advocates, industry observers, and tech media alike. Yesterday the search giant aggregated information to guess about ad placement; but tomorrow it will learn much more about you – the things that you like and the people who you know. As the ACLU says, “Google is following you.”

What’s next? Will Google bring its algorithms to bear on that more complex problem –  anticipating what you will think before you think it? We not only think so, Google says so:

“A more consistent user experience across Google might mean that we give you more accurate spelling suggestions because you’ve typed them before. Or maybe we can tell you that you’ll be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and the local traffic conditions.”

With so many ‘signals’ from across so many users from so many platforms, the quantitative-driven Google believes it can make more than an educated guess about what you’ll need. We believe they can.

Consequently, Better Bike has decided that it’s better not to collect any information at all from our site visitors that might feed into Google’s data banks. Our changes are minor and under-the-hood, and you’ll need no disclosure or disclaimer or terms of service to understand them. We’re simply moving away from visitor tracking and pulling our work from proprietary platforms and keeping it in-house, as it were, on our own server, so that our visitor information and browsing patterns (on Better Bike and beyond) stay in our hands.

No More Tracking

First, in the wake of Google’s new policy we have discontinued use of Google Analytics, stripping our site of that visitor-tracking javascript (and all Facebook meta tags too). Better Bike has always been ad-free. We’ve never enrolled in any Adsense-type scheme or deployed any other ad tracker. (Today it is common to land on a site with fifteen of them.)

We’ve also discontinued our use of Google’s Feedburner RSS service because it tracked users (you can still subscribe through our site for RSS push notifications of new posts). We’ve also closed our Facebook page. (We didn’t see the value in it anyway, but your mileage may vary.) We do value our readers, though, so we’ve made it simple subscribe to our new weekly email news digest.

No More Third-Party Emails

Second, we’ve moved all of our emailing to our own server. Rather than work through third-party contact platforms like MailChimp or Constant Contact, now we send plain-text emails. We never liked HTML-format emails because they’re a vector for malware and they take too much time to compose…time better spent on creating a post. As an added bonus, now your email address is not in a company DB waiting to be sold or parted out at bankruptcy or otherwise compromised.

But the real benefit of sending email directly is that it avoids Mailchimp’s click-though tracking links. Routing click-through via a service was a already a concern. The Mailchimp privacy policy runs to 2,600 words, and we believe that you shouldn’t have to tacitly consent to turn over your information to them for Mailchimp purposes merely we’ve sent you an email.

But that was before we learned that Mailchimp inserts tracking links even in plain text emails, which in theory should include only visible simple links. Indeed the preview window in Mailchimp doesn’t show tracking links to the sender, though recipients receive plain text emails with them included. Not only do such links obscure the destination page link, they add clutter. So first we let HTML-format emails go, now we’re letting the service go too. From now on our emails are sent direct with no tracking links. They’re more reliable to open and are easier to share, we think.

New Weekly Email Digest Format

We will be sending out a weekly digest of recent Better Bike posts to keep you informed. Weekly email updates, we’ve noticed, is a practice of many of the advocacy groups that we follow, so why not run with that good idea?

Readers who had previously indicated an interest in receiving emails have been folded in to the new weekly notifications. For new visitors, sign-up is now easier and requires only an email – no names necessary. If it’s too much, simply unsubscribe and follow us via RSS in your favorite feed reader.

We hope that our weekly digest, along with the subscription options and recent usability improvements that we’ve made to the front end of the site, will make browsing Better Bike low-friction and more rewarding. We’re always open to your ideas about the site and especially any news you can share about your experiences riding in Beverly Hills.

On Google’s Terms, A Panopticon Matures

Google's new networkGoogle recently announced a change in how it collects information from search and online activity conducted through Google platforms and proprietary services like Youtube. While Google long collected IP addresses as a proxy for location, and also used cookies to identify return visitors, the search giant is going a big step further now: it will begin to marshal data from users’ activity data from across all of its services and then will attach it to a user account. All the better to know you and serve you ads. And so much more!

Google logoThese changes have put online privacy on the front burner here at Better Bike. It’s not just site cookies and Gmail ads that raise a red flag; what has us alarmed is the coordination of the many tools at Google’s disposal – from cookies to tracking pixels, link trackers to hardware identifiers – to know us as best it can. All the better to generate new revenue streams, presumably. But that’s the least of our concerns.

And it’s not about the dissemination of data per se. Google says that it won’t sell personal information or share it without permission. We believe them. Why would they want to? Our data is more valuable within the Googleplex than outside. It’s what they want to do with all of it: to mix it and match it and generate personally-identifiable profiles. They simply want to know us better.

Now, some folks may remain sanguine. “Knowing me better means that I’ll see ads that I care about.” And yes, that’s long been the genius behind Google’s search. But Google is going farther now; it wants to remind us of that meeting that somebody mentioned in an email message. Or to show me ads for a new listing service if I’ve corresponded with a divorce attorney. Or simply to return search results based on what my Google+ circle says about politics or whatever. Even if none of them have made that conversation public. Merely using Google services after March 1st is their consent to share it.

Google policy change textNo matter what you call this – Orwell’s Big Brother or DARPA’s Total Information Awareness or Google’s ‘relevant search’ – when you throw into Google’s AI algorithms all of your data, contacts, and online activities, you extend it’s reach into every sphere of your life, and that reach is already vast. It includes YouTube, Blogger, Buzz, Books, Google+, Groups, Mobile/Android, Gmail, Apps suite & Picasa – not to mention Voice and Checkout, two services that neatly bring your offline activities right into your online profile today.

Cause for alarm? We think so. It’s reason enough at least to carefully scrutinize Google’s new policies, terms, and privacy disclosure to know how they will impact you. In all likelihood you’ won’t take a hard look. Did you read the terms & conditions for your bank or wireless contract (<4,000 words), for Twitter (3,000) or Google’s Picasa (2,500), or iTunes (16,000 words/40 pages on an iPad)? The Superior Court of California’s terms run only 800 words! Helpfully Google posted a brief FAQ but don’t let your imagination stop there.

Ask yourself if you understood when putting your data out there in public that it could find a place in a law enforcement database? FBI and NYPD and like-minded organizations access phone location data without subpoena and scrape social networks sites to learn about who we know and what we do. Some point to a growing coziness between the US Government and the search giant – fears about which were heightened when Google street view camera cars captured in volume hardware addresses and  wireless payload data a few years ago. EPIC seeks information about a case where the government leans on social networks to turn over data outside of a company’s terms & conditions.

Some user imagination is what’s required here because terms & conditions generally tell you what kind of data is collected but they don’t imagine for you how it will be used. Imagination is not evenly distributed, of course; Google and Facebook and the like have cornered the market.

Not surprisingly, Google’s new approach has generated considerable interest among privacy advocates like the ACLU and tech observers like Ars not least because online activity tracking and social graphs muddy the distinction between what we choose to share and that which we share unknowingly. An Atlantic Magazine columnist suggests we reexamine the social graph of our relationships with companies like Google and ask, “At what point does Google know more about me than I’m comfortable with?” I would add that we don’t even know what Google knows about us.

I’ll give Google credit for the new disclosures; they’re easy to understand. But they won’t answer that last question. Know that once you sign on, you’ve contractually released Google from upholding the data confidentiality and privacy policies that we accepted only a short time ago. But now that they’ve disclosed, you get to decide. As Google itself says in its introduction to the changes, “This stuff matters.” Despite the casual language, they’re not joking.