Google: Product vs. Policy

On March 1st, as announced this week on their blog, Google’s new privacy policy will go into effect. They will be merging over 60 of their 70+ privacy polices into a single global policy that governs nearly all of their properties. I don’t think this change in and of itself is nefarious, so let me go into detail as to why, by March 1st, Google and I will have parted ways.

Let’s start with an overview of what the new privacy policy entails and why a privacy policy is intrinsic to Google’s success before we actually talk about my use of Google products, their value to me, and why ultimately I won’t be using them anymore.

Google’s new policy breaks down the privacy barriers between their own applications so that information they gather about you in one can be used in another. These fences between their properties used to mean that information, say, in an email was only used to provide relevant advertising in Gmail. Now, the data collected on any Google product can be used by any other Google product. The contents of emails will be used to influence the relevancy of a pre-roll ad on YouTube and having a vacation in Cancun in a calendar will increase the chances of ads for hotels and luggage close to that travel date. Google says that with this cross-suite information they can provide more targeted and relevant ads for you. Sounds great, if you like ads.

They also explain how this information is used to build a better understanding of your likes and interests and tailors search results based on your personal profile. If I search “Apple”, Google will be in a much better position after March 1st to know my interests and serve results for Apple.com rather than Wikipedia: Apple (fruit) based on search activity, site history, Google+ posts, Analytics on my blog, YouTube videos, etc. Again, sounds like a decent solution to a growing problem of relevant search results.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong from a privacy aspect in what Google is doing with their new policy. They are definitely being honest, making the policy understandable, and diligently notifying users of these changes. The updated privacy policy isn’t the problem, it’s Google utter reliance on this data for revenue that bothers me.

In Q4 of 2011, 96% of Google’s revenues came from advertising. This has been a trend for years and shouldn’t be a surprise. As a publicly traded company, Google is responsible to shareholders to increase profits year over year and they do this through farming your data and finding more places to serve you ads. Again, nothing wrong with that if you like ads. The inherent problem is that Google’s business is built around your data and their business model is to continue to collect as much of it as possible and show you more and more ads. They won’t radically spin off a section of the company to build something else that makes money, so to satisfy investors and shareholders, they only have one direction to go: after you. Even now, they’ve been able to maintain fairly good PR about their use of personal data but knowing their corporate duties in a capitalistic world, how much longer are you willing to bet your personal data on them skirting “being evil”?

It’s clear that the companies values are where they make their money. Over the last year, Google has focused more on building a better ad machine than making things their products better. When the executive team is making decisions where to focus Google’s insane amount of engineers, do you think they are going to put them on products that make 4% of profits or the 96% profit products? Google’s once great products start becoming mediocre, then will crumble while their personal profiling algorithms are shiny and strong.

You can see what happens when a companies core business and value is the products they create and they turn everything they’ve made right back into building better things. But that’s not Google. Google’s policies are the compass that guides them through the dangerous world turning a profit over people’s privacy and my trust in them is failing.

So while it’s still mostly friendly, I’m breaking up with Google. For years I loved Gmail and Google Calendar and was productive and happy using them. They often seemed to get a fresh coat of paint and useful features were added to Gmail Labs. I really valued being able to access a great suite of applications like Google’s from anywhere on the web. These were the days before I had an iPhone, back before super thin MacBook Airs and iCloud. Now I value something else. These devices I have with me all the time have solid email clients and new apps like Sparrow which have made email slick, productive, and easy to process. What matters to me more now than Gmail’s free, universally accessible web app is control.

My first step towards taking control of my email communications was over a year ago when I migrated all of my email to a personal @nickwynja.com address. At that time I was still OK with Google but I knew that if at anytime I needed to switch away from them I could take my email address with me and have a relatively painless transition. Part of this control I have now means I can invest my own time, money, and patronage to services that deserve it and will continue to invest back into their own products. Unlike Google, Fastmail makes their money by having a great email service and will grow their business by bettering their product. You may have noticed that I’m very deliberate in what I chose to spend money on, pay attention to, or choose to give my patronage, so for me, paying Fastmail to host my email is an investment into their product and a belief that my money will help them keep their service online and continue to build new features in the future. I value their ability to provide a great product, ask money for it, and stand behind it. Have you ever tried to get customer support for Gmail or Google Apps? We depend on email daily and now I’m confident that if I ever have issues I can easily file a tickets and ultimately have the freedom to take my business elsewhere. I’m not locked in anymore. As long as I own the domain, I can come and go to any email service as I please. I can even run my own mail server if I’m ever crazy enough to do that.

As Google’s focus moved away from investing into and growing their products, they became less valuable to me. The applications were getting less useful and more frustrating. Google made major changes to how they looked and worked in the name of simplicity when simplicity wasn’t what was going to solve my problems. Our paths diverged. Google started chasing money in a different direction than would make their software better and I became more interested in productive tools than putting up with ads. Even when they told me new things would be simpler and improve their services, I was aware of Google’s need for my data to make money and their continuing needing for more and more of that data to to hit business goals.

It was time I took control.

Nerds, you might be interested in how I went about migrating email and setting up restricted accounts to maintain some reluctant but necessary ties to services like Reader and Analytics. I’ll write about these steps so you can take control if you choose.

Update: Here’s an in-depth walkthrough of my Exodus from Google