Senior figures from Google’s UK headquarters have been summoned by ministers and advised to remove from search rankings the copycat websites which are charging substantial fees for Government services including applications for passports and driving licences.
Ministers have concerns that rogue sites – especially those dealing with tax returns and passport applications - are not only charging users for services which are of no added value but are collating personal data which may not be securely stored and could be used in identity theft fraud.
After talks with Communications minister Ed Vaizey, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd, Google has agreed to take down a number of sponsored adverts for sites that were not offering valid services. “Our objective is to ensure that people find legitimate government websites – particularly for tax, driving licences, passports and congestion charge – at the top of their search rankings rather than get diverted to sites that don’t add any value, cost them money and take their personal details,” said Mr Vaizey.
The Government decided to take action after the consumer rights group Which? reported a series of complaints that sites were using sponsored adverts to appear in searches and were masquerading as legitimate Government services, exaggerating what they could provide and deliberately underplaying the services that people can get for free or at lower cost from official sources.
One site, UK-Passport.net, was charging fees of £72.50 for a checking service that is available at the Post Office for £8.75. Another site, called passport.gb.com, was found to be welcoming users with the slogan “UK Passport Application Service”. Another site, britishpassportservices.co.uk, was using an online form that Which? described as being “extremely similar” to the official document.
Getting rid of Google: Privacy options and alternative services for the internet giant
Getting rid of Google: Privacy options and alternative services for the internet giant
1/10 Removing custom adverts
Google creates custom adverts on websites based on what you have previously searched, but if you want to modify what personal information Google saves about you, you can view your ad settings. This specifies data about a user, such as their age and gender. The search engine even stores information on your 'interests' based on a user's "activity on websites". If you want to block Google from using your personal data to create custom ads, you can opt out of both "interest-based ads" on Google, as well as on the web. You can also block certain advertiser campaigns, although this does not apply to YouTube as well as Google. Click here to change your settings.
2/10 Removing web history
When you create a Google account, Google Web history is automatically turned on. This stores information on details such as pages visited, Google searches, results from searches (even inside Google+, Gmail and Google Calendar), adverts you have previously responded to and your IP address. However, it is also possible to delete your previous Google web history and turn off your Web history being saved in the future. Click here to check your history.
3/10 Removing Google+
Users are now automatically given a Google+ account once they sign up to a Gmail account. If you want to remove your Google+ account all together, users can deactivate their profile by going into Account Settings and finding the link at the very bottom for “Deactivate Google+”. Click here to see your Google+ account settings.
If you really want to stop depending on Google then you're going to need to find a different search engine. DuckDuckGo is a great alternative for the privacy conscious, boasting that they do not store any personal data at all. The search engine even runs the website Don't Track Us, which outlines the main privacy flaws of Google. To hammer home their point they tell users. “Remember your searches? Google also saves them. Your saved searches can be legally requested, and then come back to bite you.”
5/10 Bing Maps
After search, maps are probably Google's most dominant product. Microsoft’s Bing Maps has a number of similar features to Google Maps, including including all the expected route planners, aerial view, etc. Although it's not yet available as a standalone map for mobile (unless you've got a Windows Phone) it does get folder into the Bing app. Unfortunately it's not a great experience - better stick to the web.
6/10 Map Quest
Another alternative is MapQuest, which is owned by AOL. The service is fairly ancient by internet standards but a recently released app has some impressive features including voice navigation, live traffic updates, automatic traffic re-routing and even suggests the best petrol prices in a certain area.
7/10 Office web apps
For those who want an alternative to Google Docs, the company's free web-based productivity suite, then Office web apps, from Microsoft is probably your best bet. Although the free apps have limited functionality compared to the paying softarwe, you can still modify documents, spreadsheets, and presentations directly from its web interface. And just like Google Docs, multiple users can collaborate on a document all at once.
8/10 Libre Office
And if you're not particularly in need of web-based editing but don't want to pay for Office or use Google Docs then Libre Office is a great open-source alternative. Everything will, of course, feel a little unfamiliar at first but the functionality is all there. The software package even has an equation editor that allows users to display mathematical, chemical, electrical or scientific equations quickly in standard written notation – making them much easier to understand.
Hotmail is a solid alternative to Google’s email suite. Now that Hotmail is integrated with Skydrive, users can send files up to 10GB in size. Another benefit is the “one click filter” setting which lets users filter emails i.e. social update emails from Facebook, as well as emails from regular contacts that users would want to separate from the main inbox.
Shortmail is a unique email platform – all emails are limited to 500 characters, attachments are not allowed, and there is no folder structure. However, the service claims that there is no junk email – a benefit that many will enjoy. Shortmail is also available as an iOS app.
Which? also received numerous complaints about the TaxReturnGateway.com site, which charged consumers between £150 and £1,000 for processing a self-assessment tax return. This was justified on the grounds that forms were checked for mistakes. But a spokesperson for Which? said: “We think this is misleading as HMRC has told us that the applications through the official site are also checked for errors.”
Other problems were discovered with copycat services relating to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which covers holders for emergency healthcare in Europe. Which? found one website falsely claiming that it was offering services that were unavailable on the NHS. Another site used a web address including the initials “nhs”, which the consumer rights group said “may lead consumers to think they are using the official site”.
Last week Google acted on complaints from Transport for London that copycat sites were charging up to 1,000 a day up to £8 for additional services that either didn’t exist or were provided for free. Sites had taken payments for motorists even at times when congestion charges did not apply.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? said action was overdue. “For too long copycat websites have got away with misleading consumers into paying potentially hundreds of pounds for services that should be free.”
Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, said he would not allow rogue sites to undermine Government plans to digitise public services. “Hardworking taxpayers should never have to pay for services we provide for free so we are clamping down on misleading websites. Gov.uk, our new single web domain, is the best way to access Government information and services.”
Google removed the sponsored adverts after working with the Government Digital Service to identify sites which were misleading consumers and were in breach of Google's policies. Theo Bertram, Head of Policy, Google UK, said: “We want to be serving ads that our users find useful. Working with the Government and TfL we have been able to better enforce our existing policies and protect users from misleading websites.” Google will be anxious to ensure that it does not block adverts for legitimate businesses, such as accountancy firms that offer genuine advice on tax returns.