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Privacy? Why you should let Google, Facebook and others track you online

Mainstream news (in fact, all news outlets) will have you believe it’s the end of the world. Google’s new privacy policy came into effect yesterday.

Hilton Tarrant: Columnist
Hilton Tarrant is production editor at Moneyweb. His main focus is project management for the listed company’s local and international websites, and contributes to their strategic direction.... More

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From CBS News: How to remove your Google Web History, from the Washington Post: Google privacy policy changes March 1: How to clear your search history, account information and the obligatory Business Insider impression bait: How to Use Google’s New Privacy Tools to Stop Them from Tracking You. Then of course there are the fear mongers. Headlines like this are irresponsible and, quite honestly, bordering on insanity: The Internet makes money by spying on you (yet they currently litter news websites).

Its strangely reminiscent of the fracas that erupted when people “realised” that Facebook – a social network that stores your identity – was (SHOCK! HORROR!) actually storing your identity.

A single privacy policy for Google. What is wrong with this? I’d rather Google have a single view of me and my browsing habits across Google, Gmail, YouTube than multiple disparate (and possibly at-odds) views of me. We’ll let the EU deal with their “reservations” and “standards”.

So what does Google (which is “spying on me”, remember) know about me? Let’s turn to Business Insider’s expected sensational headline: Stop What You’re Doing, And Go See What Google Thinks It Knows About You. Here’s the link to Google’s view of you.

A “summary of the interests and inferred demographics that Google has associated” with my cookie:

  • Arts & Entertainment — Music & Audio — Dance & Electronic Music
  • Arts & Entertainment — Music & Audio — Pop Music (Probably cause I spend a fair amount of time on BBC Radio 1’s website)
  • Beauty & Fitness (Ha!)
  • Business & Industrial — Transportation & Logistics — Parking (Who knows? I certainly don’t.)
  • Finance — Investing (Surprise!)
  • Food & Drink — Restaurants (Always looking for good places to eat)
  • News — Journalism & News Industry (Surprise!)
  • World Localities — Africa — Southern Africa — South Africa (Surprise)

And the clincher: “No demographic categories are associated with your ads preferences so far.”

Obviously, what Google “knows” about me changes with my browsing habits. A lot of research about economics and investing in February saw more of those categories captured in my profile.

Simplistically, these “interests” and “inferred demographics” mean more relevant advertising on Google itself and wherever websites make use of Google AdSense.

In the past few months, I’ve seen highly-relevant adverts for airline and hotel offers, for bank accounts and online share trading and investing platforms. I can’t seem to get rid of the Groupon ads, although its recent cuts in marketing spend post-IPO seem to largely have done this for me.

Of course Google shouldn’t do evil things like deliberately bypassing browser privacy settings, this article is not about that.

Facebook has given users more controls over privacy than most online services and I’d expect it to improve controls over advertising settings as it hurtles towards its IPO. Its much-criticised instant personalisation feature, which launched a year ago, is fairly easy to turn off.

According to Facebook, instant personalisation offers a more “social” experience of third-party partner sites. CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains it in a practical way: “if you’re logged into Facebook and go to Pandora for the first time, it can immediately start playing songs from bands you’ve liked across the web. And as you’re playing music, it can show you friends who also like the same songs as you, and then you can click to see other music they like”.

Hardly earth-shattering stuff. And this is simply because we’ve become more tolerant of sharing and less concerned about privacy (try think back a decade).

Ignore the privacy loons and “concerned action groups”. I’d far rather see ads that are relevant to me and that I may actually click on, than free cursor and weight-loss flashy things that littered the web before AdSense.