Leading article: Questions of privacy that demand answers

The interests of advertisers and the privacy of internet users must be balanced

Related Topics

There has certainly been much ado about Google's latest, updated privacy policy. By merging the different codes governing its 60-odd online services, the internet giant will be able to sweep together individual customers' data from a variety of sources. That means whatever is searched for on Google, referred to in Gmail, watched on YouTube, and so on, will be aggregated and used to target advertising based on the individual preferences revealed.

The Orwellian overtones are clear. And European data protection authorities are, rightly, concerned about the implications. Preliminary analysis, commissioned from the French regulatory authority, suggests the scheme may not conform to EU law, concluding that Google's explanation of how the data will be used is too difficult to understand "even for trained privacy professionals".

Ultimately, however, the changes may turn out to be less alarming than they initially appear. After all, Google already matches ads to the queries entered in its search engine. The same applies to Gmail, to the Google Plus online sharing system, and to video recommendations on YouTube. It is hard to see how bundling everything together will make matters qualitatively worse. And, in fairness, no actual human being has access to any individual's data; matching ads to content is done entirely by computer algorithms.

It is also worth remembering the bargain one strikes online. One of the primary reasons for the popularity of Google's services is their relevance. While targeting advertising more narrowly may seem creepy to some, many will rejoice in the additional usefulness. Equally, given the commercial realities of service provision, a few personalised ads may be a reasonable price to pay for the range of Google offerings.

That said, there is still a balance to be struck between the interests of advertisers and those of internet users. And while Google's latest tweaks may yet be deemed an acceptable compromise, elsewhere in the online world there are developments of a darker hue.

Changes being introduced by Facebook are a case in point. Critics of the social networking site's newly introduced "timeline" feature – which encourages users to post their entire life history online – claim it makes it far more difficult for people to assert what the EU data commissioner has called "the right to be forgotten". Once private material based on anything from location, to email conversations, to present and historical searches, has passed into the public domain, it is nigh-impossible to erase.

Facebook also plans to end the easily ignored display adverts at the side of its webpage, instead allowing advertisers to stream messages into the posting, photos and updates of users' online friends. Marketing messages may show up unsolicited if someone has previously interacted with a brand. And ads will also now be streamed on to mobile devices – which count for around 30 per cent of Facebook use – for the first time.

Clearly caveat emptor must apply online as much as anywhere. But the changes from Google and Facebook also make a broader point, underlining once again the caution to be exercised around online activities. And what is clearest of all is that regulators must ensure internet users are not blinded with technical details.

We all must make decisions about what to disclose, when and to whom. To do so, we need to know, in simple terms, what data is being collected, how it is being stored, and how it will be used. The lesson from recent developments is that, for most people, it is too difficult to grasp what new systems mean, and too complicated to opt out of them. That must change. Confidence in a digital future depends on the certainty that our privacy is not at risk.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary