10/14/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2013

Google's New Policy and the Conscientious Click

On Friday, Google announced an update to its terms of service that allows the company to include adult users' names, photos and comments in ads shown across the Web, based on ratings, reviews and posts they have made on Google Plus and other Google services like YouTube. -- The New York Times

Data often know best. Remember the story of how Target figured out a girl was pregnant before she told her parents? This was just based on what she had searched online and purchased in the store. The personalized advertisements on Google are exactly that: matched to what the search engine believes to be our interests and preferences. And isn't that kind of nice? It's like having your own personal shopper, without the hindrance of having to explain yourself. They simply know your tastes. On the other hand, the idea of being outed by a search engine makes me feel vulnerable. I can't even remember everything I've "liked." Have I embarrassed myself without knowing it?

I understand why some people think the update -- like the personalized ads on Facebook -- is creepy. It's always a weird feeling to learn that someone else who you don't know is watching what you do. There appears to be an imbalance of power, as though we're alone inside the Panopticon with big company analysts observing us and taking notes as though we're zoo animals. But that feeling just doesn't make sense. I always laugh in the subway when I see signs that say, "Don't become a statistic." While the message is usually positive, the premise is technically absurd. Paying taxes, filling out the census -- just being born in America -- we are data points automatically in millions of statistics. Already, so much of who we are and what we do is logged and recorded as data: what we click and how often, what we buy, our gender, age, financial, homeowner, and marital statuses. All this happens in a way that is invisible to us. The moment it's made visible, exposed in a newspaper article or railed about on a blog, we begin to protest. Unlike the current controversy with the NSA, however, there aren't constitutional protections on this type of consumer information, and with good reason: it doesn't really jeopardize our civil liberties.

But it also means we have to change the way we operate online. It's important to be aware that the companies and products we "like" are private choices made public. If we "like" something, that is a kind of official endorsement, and unless we "unlike," we are linking ourselves to that company or product visibly and perceptibly. My takeaway here is that I'll probably become more conservative with my "likes." For instance, before publicly associating myself with an organization, I'd want to make sure that I believe their practices and goals are ethically aligned with my own. Why not do the same online and learn to be a conscientious "liker"? Part of the popularity of the "liking" system comes from the fact that you can do it with one click. Maybe one click isn't enough. Before we get swept away by the current of appreciation for an exciting new company or item, we need to start doing our homework.

Whether you like it or not (weak pun intended), every click you make online, every purchase, every article you read, says something about you. And with the rise of targeted advertising, that information is increasingly convertible into dollars. While some worry that this sneaky "watching" steals autonomy from the consumer, it actually gives us a new medium to communicate with companies and show them what is really important to us -- in other words, the power to click conscientiously.