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Posted at 11:57 AM ET, 01/25/2012

Google’s no-opt-out privacy changes and the end of the anonymous Internet


Go ogle yourself and leave me out of it. (Paul McErlane - Bloomberg)
I miss the old Google.

I miss the old Internet. I don’t miss Hamster Dance (see it once, you’ll have it stuck in your head for the next 10 years) or AOL (skreeeeee-onk, skreeeeee-onk, kcck, kssssh, kllissssh, shhhhhhs) or the dial-up speeds that required a full day to download the minute-long trailer for “The Phantom Menace.”

I miss the anonymity.

And Google’s latest move is just one more step away from that world.

Google announced Tuesday its plans to integrate data from all its services with your profile for logged-in Google+ users. As usual, they sounded chipper about it: “We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.”

A bigger problem, as The Post’s Hayley Tsukayama pointed out, is that, for Android users, there’s never really an option to be logged out, so everything you do, Google can now track, from searches to direction requests to videos watched.

Google is going to treat all its logged-in visitors as single users, everywhere within its services? Must you, Google?

Google hasn’t been itself lately. What started out as the simplest, fastest, least fussy search engine and best e-mail provider is now trying to expand into this whole Social Media thing it’s heard so much about. As often happens when someone is late to the party, the results are embarrassing.

I understand that this has cool applications. That’s always the trade-off — one man’s creepy waste of a limb is another man’s cool new robot arm. But sometimes we forget that Google is people.

Ten years ago, if your mailman had demanded to follow you around, taking note of all your appointments, giving you directions and asking to see all the pictures you took and videos you watched, “Look,” you might have said, “you’re very good, but can you stick to delivering mail unless I ask you to do otherwise? You already read all my letters and send me ads for enhancement services that I did not know I required. And this is getting a little disturbing.” Even worse if it’s the silent man at the library who looks up esoterica for you.

But there’s something larger at stake.

The Internet, nowadays, is overwhelmingly dominated by fora in which you hang out as your actual self. Facebook. Twitter. And now, Google.

But not to get all Proustian on everyone, we are all composed of many selves. And nowhere is that more true than in the things we do online. Perfectly good, upstanding citizens will watch outre trailer and laugh at videos of cats running into walls. There are videos of housecats speaking in tongues that I have watched hundreds of times. And don’t get me started on the music videos. On the Internet, things that we’d turn our noses up at in person go viral because people have a freedom online to be curious without consequence.

Show me someone who stands behind his entire browser history, and I will show you a confident liar.

Are there still places where you can be someone else online? Certainly. But increasingly, we spend our time in places where we are ourselves, among people we know in real life. And this sort of real identification means that you can’t traipse willy-nilly about the lush fields of Internet Things the way you used to. When Facebook wanted to know what I was reading and what I was listening to, I balked but surrendered, as I generally do with Facebook. But we’re losing something.

Tie actions online to our real identities, and suddenly online activity has real-world consequences.

Sure, we can log out. But why make that our only option? Many people would think this was cool and be willing to accept the integration. There’s potential here.

But why force us? By making this integration no-opt-out, Google took something that could have excited people and made us vaguely nervous and irritated by it. If it’s such an upgrade, why not allow us to decide?

Google used to be the anti-Facebook, the site that allowed you to gaze outward without fear that your wife would know that you’d been looking up directions to the Appalachian Trail or Polite Ways to Tell Her It’s Over. But now?

Google, what happened? You’re going from efficient to officious, from intuitive to invasive. You’re becoming an inept repeat of everything that bothers us enough when Facebook does it.

“Don’t be evil” has long been the Google motto. Don’t be creepy? Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater?

That, they’re still working on.

By  |  11:57 AM ET, 01/25/2012

Tags:  Google, oy

 
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