“Don’t Be a Tool” and Other Friendly Reminders

When I was a kid, I remember people having diaries.  They chronicled their lives writing their innermost thoughts as a way of processing and remembering.  These diaries were hidden away so no one saw them, and sometimes had little locks on them to symbolize the privacy of their contents.  I presume that some people still keep diaries.  I know people who carry journals around and write in them.  But I also know people who chronicle their lives in public via Twitter, blogs, or Facebook. Many people chose to share their more than they used to, and draw the lines between public and private in new ways.

This was on my mind as I reflected on this week’s launch of the new online storage service, Google Drive.  It basically is a build-out of the Google Docs system that now allows you to store files in the cloud that are not necessarily connected to any of its content services like Docs or Picasa.  They are looking to compete with DropBox, Box, SkyDrive, SugarSync, etc.  Its big advantages seem to be two fold: more free storage than the competition and integration with Google services like Google Docs.  Sounds cool.

But before you jump right in, it is worth taking a moment to reflect again upon Google’s Terms of Service.

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes that we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights that you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing that you have added to Google Maps). Some Services may offer you ways to access and remove content that has been provided to that Service.

Yep, when you use Google, you grant a pretty expansive license to your data.  Some of this makes lots of sense.  They need permission to reproduce your data to make backups or aggregate usage stats to direct hardware upgrades efficiently.  Some makes less sense.  Why should they get to use my photos for advertising Google?  Elsewhere in the Terms they say you retain IP rights, but if you have to agree to license to Google, that’s a bit of a limitation!  And the license continues after I stop using the Google!

They do note that:

in some of our Services, there are terms or settings that narrow the scope of our use of the content submitted in those Services. Make sure that you have the necessary rights to grant us this licence for any content you submit to our Services.

Ok. That is, if you spend time wading through the confusing privacy settings, you will perhaps are able to limit the scope in some places.  But my explorations suggest that they primary limits are on what Google shows advertisers and the public, not what it can use.

There has been lots of debate online about the TOS issues and the new Drive product.  On one side are those who worry about privacy.  On the other are those who believe that Google is no threat to privacy, and that privacy is really something that only crazy conspiracy theorist worry about.

My concern here is not with privacy, per se.  Both sides have some points. My concern is that people have become so accustomed to being used as a tool by others that they really don’t even notice it anymore. As Stephen Shankland over at C-Net reminds us:

Google is applying its data-extraction technology to whatever you upload to Google Drive for personal searching purposes. Its Google Goggles technology scours images for recognizable text and images — a Coca-Cola logo pops to the front of the search results even though it’s only in a photo, for example, and Google uses optical character recognition (OCR) technology to try to extract text from PDFs.

Even if you set your settings to “private”, your data is scanned.  Because that’s how Google makes money: by steering you toward advertisers.  Your history, your data is their marketing plan. You are their tool.  This is nothing new.  It has been Google’s approach for years.  It used to be giving you the best search results.  Now it is giving you some good search results mixed with what it thinks you want, and what its advertisers want you to want.  It is the filter bubble.

But here’s the question: why should I be forced to give up control over the use of my information in order to use their service?  None of the other cloud drive services have this same requirement.  Are Google’s offerings so awesome that you really can’t live without them?  Probably not.  I’ve tried them.  I love Google search, but don’t use any of their other services.  And I turned off the search history functions.  I’m doing fine.

Google is riding a massive hype wave that tells us that software is adequate compensation for using your data to make people some money.  A lot of money.  You are a tool in their toolbox.  And you aren’t compensated particularly well.

But the corollary question is equally important: why do we choose to give up control of my information in order to use some service?  Is the sanctity of my data really so unimportant?  To put it another way, why would we buy the hype?

My guess is that most of us don’t pay a whole lot of attention anymore—if we ever did.  We don’t even think of it as a choice.  It is so easy to buy the hype.  We’re also so used to being used as engines of wealth creation in our consumerist culture that it’s not much of a leap.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for buying things we need.  But if the personal happiness and the economic stability of the nation requires that we buy things we don’t need to fill artificially generated desires, than we are in big trouble.

One of Kant’s formulations of the categorical imperative—the basic moral norm for human life—is that you should treat people as ends, never as means.  Stealing your sister’s diary and reading it was an exercise in using someone as a means of entertainment that necessarily involved violating her human dignity.  Everybody knew it.

In the case of our data, we freely choose to be used as a means.  That we choose it doesn’t mean that there is any less potential for violating our human dignity by inadvertently releasing sensitive data or failing to offer just compensation for data use.

Next time you install something or sign up for a service, take a little time to consider what you are trading.  Take a read through those terms of service to see what’s there.  Don’t be a tool.



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