Google privacy controls: Most people won't care

Google Dashboard is putting personal data in the hands of users, but most of us won't care enough to exercise this control.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Google's biggest threat is no longer Microsoft. It is itself.

As the company harvests copious quantities of personal data, it becomes dramatically better at serving customer needs...

...and at freaking them out over privacy concerns.

In other words, Google gets stronger with every Google Doc created, every Google Voice call dialed, and every Gmail e-mail sent. It becomes stronger because data is the heart of the Web's biggest businesses, as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady implies.

But in so doing Google also becomes more threatening to the very consumers it is trying to serve.

Google Dashboard is meant to change this by putting consumer data back in the hands of consumers. It's a move that follows on Google's earlier pledge to "open data" and its Data Liberation Front.

Yes, but will he give me better search? U.S. Army

As CNET reports, Dashboard lets people review the personal data Google has stored for them, delete it, and alter future collection policies. It's a great way for Google to mollify concerned users, putting control back in their hands.

Still, it's almost certainly never going to be used by the vast majority of Google users. Ever.

Why? Because for all our hand-wringing over privacy--and for good reason--the reality is that most of us, most of the time, really don't care. Or, rather, if accessing useful services or getting work done more efficiently requires some privacy concessions, we gladly concede.

It's not that we don't value our privacy. It's just that in many contexts, we value other things as much or more. We weigh the risks versus the benefits, and often the benefits trump the privacy risks.

It's the same thing with file formats. For years we've been agonizing over Microsoft's lock-in of customers through proprietary file formats (.pst, .doc, etc.). Now Microsoft is opening up the specifications for file formats like .pst (Outlook file format), and yet it will almost certainly change little to nothing in what products most people use most of the time.

People don't use Microsoft Office because they're forced to. They do so because it's convenient. (Yes, an argument can be made that it's convenient because Microsoft has forced network effects through lock-in.)

This, incidentally, is exactly the reason that Wednesday night I declared a ban on Microsoft Office in our family in favor of Google Docs--and didn't opt for OpenOffice (which we also use). I got sick of having to recover documents and perform other IT tasks related to a locally installed office suite, open source or proprietary. And I find it easier to let Google handle the back-end IT operations.

I wasn't trying to evade lock-in. I was trying to increase personal happiness.

Am I concerned about Google snooping on the documents we write and store in Google Docs? Let's just say I worry more about my time fixing Office than whether Google gleans any information from my 12-year old's seventh-grade essay.

Dashboard leaves Google in the prime position of being able to honestly say that it doesn't control user data, while still delivering increasingly beneficial services based on that data. It will not change the way that the vast majority of consumers use Google, but it just might change the way they think about Google.

A very smart move by Google, one that all data-driven businesses should emulate.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.