Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Google’s Privacy Backpedal Shows Why It’s So Hard Not to Be Evil

There is a saying in Silicon Valley that when a product is free, the user is the product.

That’s a diplomatic way of describing what amounts to tech companies’ cynicism toward their own customers. Time was, companies worked to meet customer needs, but tech businesses have turned that on its head, making it the customer’s job to improve their products, services, advertising and revenue models.

With little regulatory accountability, this pursuit is a particular fixation for the biggest tech companies, which have the unique ability to pinpoint customers’ every online move. As part of this economy of surveillance there is perhaps nothing more valuable than knowing users’ locations.

So it was that Google executives were dismayed over a most inconvenient discovery: When they made it simpler to halt digital location tracking, far too many customers did so. According to recently unredacted documents in a continuing lawsuit brought by the state of Arizona, Google executives then worked to develop technological workarounds to keep tracking users even after they had opted out. So much for the customer always being right.

Rather than abide by its users’ preferences, Google allegedly tried to make location-tracking settings more difficult to find and pressured smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers to take similar measures. Even after users turned off location tracking on their devices, Google found ways to continue tracking them, according to a deposition from a company executive.

How then can we accept the company’s word when it says “privacy is at the heart of everything we do”?

According to the documents, one executive — a location product manager no less — couldn’t unpack all the ways Google tracks customers. Other employees complained that there was no clear way for consumers to provide their location to a non-Google app without it ultimately being shared with Google.

The lawsuit stems from a 2018 Associated Press investigation that demonstrated Google’s insatiable appetite for valuable location data and how it stores users’ histories even when users ask the company not to. Arizona alleges that by tracking without users’ consent, Google violated consumer protection laws that prohibit companies from mischaracterizing their business practices (Google has denied the allegations).

Only now, three years after the A.P. report, is Google rolling out an option to obscure precise location data for apps running on its Android mobile software. Really, does a chess app need to know a user is on the 300 block of Lexington Avenue?

It isn’t hard to find other ways that tech companies trample on consumers’ trust. Apple gave users the option to halt apps from tracking their activity across the mobile web, and some 93 percent of U.S. iPhone users have opted for less tracking. That prompted Facebook to tell customers that they don’t know what’s good for them and other app developers to search for workarounds, evidently against customers’ will.

Amazon engages in the practice as well. It is quietly rolling out a new wireless network known as Sidewalk that siphons bits of users’ Wi-Fi service off one another to ensure devices like Alexa speakers and Ring doorbells work continuously (and it will add third-party devices over time). The company is opting all of its customers in automatically, presumably because if given a real choice they wouldn’t wish to share free with Amazon the Wi-Fi they pay for.

After facing a backlash over humans listening in to its Alexa devices, Amazon once considered automatically opting customers out. But it rejected the notion in favor of one that served its own ends: making Alexa better.

Similar philosophies extend to nearly every corner of how Big Tech operates. The companies choose to opt customers in to data collection schemes, they draw up dense terms of service policies that give users little recourse but to accept and they seek to trick users through crafty design elements. And when they don’t like the laws that customers’ chosen elected representatives pass, they’ve shown they’re willing to spend hundreds of millions to overturn them.

California’s landmark consumer privacy policy came into effect last year, giving consumers the option to prohibit the sale of their data to third parties. Though users’ intent was crystal clear, the companies chose to disingenuously interpret the choice to apply only to selling data, not giving it away, and so they kept on distributing it free to feed their advertising businesses.

The idealism of Silicon Valley requires believing that technology companies can best solve the world’s problems, one line of code at a time. That line of thinking also glosses over an uncomfortable truth: To achieve cheap or even free services requires justifying a range of behavior that often isn’t in the best interests of consumers.

For all of the past year’s scrutiny of Big Tech — multiple congressional hearings, state and federal lawsuits — the companies grew even bigger and more essential. And bolder: One day after being sued over antitrust concerns, Amazon announced an $8.45 billion plan to buy MGM Studios.

Technology companies’ blithe disregard for consumer desires is an outgrowth of decades of permissive or nonexistent government oversight. Regulators ought to consider how Big Tech’s monopoly power further empowers the companies to ignore their own customers, in part by gobbling up competitors that offer more consumer-friendly services. Whatever the outcome of the Arizona case, if Google and others are willing to continue offering users choices, they should also be willing to respect them.

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