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Contemplating Life Without a Smartphone

January 27, 2012

Public Enemy on stage at the IndigO2,  November 14, 2010. Shot with my HTC phone, so you'll have to take my word for it

While most of the outraged chatter today has been about Twitter's new policy on state censorship (and for an insightful view about why the company may be doing the right thing, have a look here), the big changes-to-our-terms-and-conditions announcement for me this week was Google's upcoming privacy revamp. Not least because if these changes go ahead, I'll likely have to get rid of my smartphone.

There are a number of things I really, really don't like about the company's new privacy policy, announced on their blog this week. I don't like that the company basically says "trust us - we take your privacy seriously", when it's a matter of very public record that they have violated web users' privacy "accidentally" in the past. I actively do not want the fact that I might have done a web search for train timetables on my phone to mean that I am more likely to get exposed to ads about train journeys when using Google Maps on my desktop machine at home: but when this comes in, I'll have no choice, unless I stop using my Android phone and instead go back to the "dumb" phone I bought to take to Afghanistan and restrict myself to phone calls and texts. But I particularly don't like that in this announcement to their millions of users, Google have the cheek to use the word "cool" in their attempt to convince me that making life better for advertisers is something I should not just be thankful for, but consider to be in alignment with my personal value system.

In the week that Apple became the biggest company in the world, the language of Google's announcement is particularly discomforting. Normally the public aligns itself against corporate entities - yet even the phrase Big Data, to the very limited extent it has been used thus far, is not pejorative in the way that Big Tobacco, Big Pharma or Big Oil are. The inference is that these "cool" kids are Just Like Us - they share our values, they care about stuff. Normally, people protest when their rights are trampled underfoot by giant multinationals keen to enhance their profits; yet here, we've all been pre-programmed to buy in to the notion that these companies are on "our" side. There's something positively Orwellian about the way we're all being used to help them achieve and strengthen their dominance.

UPDATE (January 27, 11:52pm): I've been pointed in the direction of this Washington Post piece in which Google explain that these new privacy settings will only apply to the millions of users of their free products, not the much smaller number of businesses which buy services from the company. As is pointed out in a comment on the NUJ New Media website coverage of the changes, this news "certainly underlines Google's position. Since government and corporate accounts don't carry ads, there's nothing to be gained from an institutional invasion of privacy. So much for the rationale that Google is only trying to enhance the user's experience."





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