Leading article: Questions of privacy that demand answers

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

Share
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: pours or pores, pulverised, ‘in preference for’ and lists

Guy Keleny
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect