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Why Google won't turn off location customization

Places Search is another step for Google to deliver location-based services. You cannot, however, turn off location-based customization. Google claims that your search results won't be of a "high quality," if you do.

I am not always awake, even when I appear to be clothed, eating, and mumbling.

So I am grateful to Google for waking me up the other morning with the news that it knew where I was. Of course, you always knew it always knew. But suddenly, as I was performing a Google search for a David Arquette Halloween mask, there was my location on the left side of the search page.

It felt like my neighbor had come in by the back door, sat down at my kitchen table, and helped herself to Weetabix and cookies. Well, not quite. You see, Google had somehow gotten my location wrong. The company seems to believe that I live about 5 miles north of where I actually do.

Still, I found myself wondering what this all might mean. So I did a Google search and discovered that this was all part of a robust thrust into location-based customization that takes advantage of widely used Internet Protocol-based technology. When Google knows where you are, it can offer you more local, intimate, cuddly results for any search you might choose to perform. Such as, I don't know, "who is the president of Azerbaijan?"

Of course, Google isn't the only site that can do this; it may just be the biggest and most powerful.

We know where you are. And you know we know where you are. So what's the big deal? CC Joli O'Dell/Flickr

No one should be surprised that Google knows where they are. This idea has been around for a long time. Every time you land in another time zone, your cell phone knows exactly where you are, so why might this be a problem?

Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps this is merely another small step toward mankind's new public life. However, I was somehow moved to read a little of Google's explanation behind telling me that I live 5 miles north of where I do. So I went to Google's location-based help pages to learn more.

What moved me most is Google's pride in informing me that I cannot turn off location-based services. This isn't personal. You can't turn them off, either.

Here is Google's explanation: "The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven't provided a way to turn off location customization, though we've made it easy for you to set your own location or to customize using a general location as broad as the country that matches your local domain."

I know there will be many whose chests (and other parts) will fill with pride at the idea that searches can be customized within inches (or, in my case, 5 miles) of your garage remote. But might there be one or two people who marvel, yet again, at how companies that purport to be progressive and, dare one use the word, liberal, seem to think nothing of behaving in a manner that restricts and imposes?

Google's help pages explain that if you live in Spain, it is rather difficult to perform a search through the eyes of an American or a Russian. You can, however widen your search so that it uses the country you are in (rather than the street) as its basis.

To search through the eyes of a foreigner, a Google representative explained to me, you go to the Google domain of the country you're interested in and specify your language preference "by clicking 'language tools' on the home page or results page." This is a little awkward, as, having just tried that for Russia, everything is in Russian (except the word "Gmail"). Finding those language tools seems not to be so easy.

But the real curiosity surely lies in the idea that a service is being imposed upon you, and you cannot switch it off. Google's charmingly constricting attitude toward location-based services is, quite naturally, all about business. If it knows where its users are, it can tell advertisers where its users are, and everyone can roll in a little more money.

It may well be that, in the extremely near future, our cell phones will be inundated with random spontaneous texts and e-mails offering us 20 percent off bras and negligees, if we'd just turn 45 degrees to our left and step inside Victoria's Secret. But isn't there something extremely sad about a company telling you that you might want to use its services without specifying your location, even if it's just for today, but you can't? What you might want, you see, doesn't really matter. What you might spend does.

In a world in which choice is championed as one of the fundamentals of the free world, isn't it a little disconcerting to be told that you have no choice?

Updated at 1:54 p.m. PDT with a clarification about user search options from Google.