03/23/2012 08:31 am ET Updated May 23, 2012

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You, Google

Google's new privacy policy of combining all your data across all Google products -- assumedly to better market your eyeballs to advertisers -- has provoked a wave of reactions across the Internet, as well as among policymakers.

European Union data protection agencies have condemned the practice and have already indicated that it violates European Union privacy laws. Acting on behalf of fellow agencies, the French agency CNIL has sent Google 69 questions probing exactly how the company is going to use user data.

Google, on the other hand, claims to have a simple defense, which was repeated by Vic Gundotra, Google Vice President, at the SXSW Conference earlier this month:

"If we do things that are evil, with one click you can leave Google..."

Sounds compelling, except it's been years since using Google's search page was the only relationship most people have with Google.  In fact, given the myriad ways Google penetrates the Internet, it is nearly impossible to quit Google and preserve your privacy.

The Many Complicated Clicks to Leaving Google: Tom Henderson over at IT World described his process of "divorcing Google" and it was anything but a one-click process.  In fact, it was an almost Homeric Odyssey spread over seven days and depending on technological tricks that few regular users could master.

For anyone using even a few Google products, there are often days, sometimes weeks, in some cases years of embedded data bound up in Google products.  Much of the data is not even exportable in any simple way.

  • All the information on all your relationships on Google Plus can't be simply downloaded and replicated on FaceBook or other social networks.
  • Folders and filtering rules for incoming email to a Gmail account can't be transferred over to Outlook or other email systems with "one click."
  • Subscriptions and other ways to track sources of videos on YouTube also don't transfer in any simple way.

Leaving Google means leaving a lot of the work you may have invested in Google products over the years.

But that's just the surface of leaving Google, as Henderson details, since particular Google products are not really the main business of the company: advertising is the name of the game and Google attaches a myriad of cookies and other trackers to its users to help its advertisers effectively target their ads.

Not only do you need to carefully scrape Google cookies out of every browser you use, but you have to carefully avoid accidentally landing on any Google site, since that can instantly restore those cookies.  Preventing this is so daunting that Henderson recommends installing a ""redirected hosts file" and if you don't know what that means, "Ask your geek friends about them."

And there are even "supercookies" that resurrect cookies you had previously deleted.  You then need at "cookie and tracking blocker" such as a program like Ghostery.  Although the problem is that to really evade the cookie parasites, such blockers have to spend computer time checking out each page, which slows loading each page.  So the price of leaving Google is a worse browsing experience.

If you have an Android phone, the problem is even more challenging.  Owning an Android phone without Google is possible, Henderson writes, but "doing so is tough, and there's work to do."  Again, it requires techie approaches like "going through a process called rooting-your-phone," hardly a one-click decision for most users.

Why the Switching Costs of Leaving Google Matters: All of this is too much work for most people and, honestly, most people feel like Google makes life more convenient, so given the hassle, letting Google track their privacy is on balance better than abandoning Google altogether.

So if folks are on balance happy with the deal Google offers, even if they grumble a bit, what's wrong with that in a market society where no deal makes everyone completely happy?

The problem is that the convenience offered is ultimately not for the benefit of those users, but is just a way to keep their eyeballs available for the real monetary deals Google is making with their advertisers.  And the result of those deals, as I detailed in my Cost of Lost Privacy series last year, is that it allows advertisers too much information to track users based on their behaviors, desires and demographics.  It allows them in the best case to figure out how to squeeze the most money out of any transaction with particular individuals and, in too many cases, allow seedy vendors, from subprime lenders to illegal online pharmacies, to prey on vulnerable targets.

This isn't a conspiracy view of Google.   Hal Varian, now the Chief Economist for Google, wrote about this goal in a 2005 article in Marketing Science--the kind of place where the 1% of the advertising world talk to each other about how best to fleece the rubes through advertising.   As he wrote, the goal of locking in customers online is to better practice "price discrimination" - the economists term for charging different prices to different people - based on their past behavior:

Sellers can offer each individual a different price, a particular prize or coupon, or personalized recommendations. With computer-mediated transactions, price discrimination on an individual basis becomes quite feasible.

Sellers maximize their profits by gleaning the maximum price each person will pay based on their past behavior. And the key to extracting this information: "provide a personalized service that is valuable to at least some of the consumers. This creates switching costs for the consumers."

So creating such a web of integrated services such that no one is reasonably likely to abandon it all has been the business plan for Google all along. Creating a single privacy policy and integrated data collection across all those services then becomes a way to make the deal all-or-nothing; users can't pick and choose to share their personal data only within a particular service, so switching costs go up.

The Need for "Data Portability" Regulations: The European Union privacy regulators have actually been very focused on this problem of switching costs, or what many call "data portability."   Earlier this year, a draft Privacy Directive was circulated (details courtesy of EPIC here) that is designed to increase user control of their data in a range of ways, one of the key ones being the "creation of a right of 'data portability,' allowing individuals to take his/her photos, medical records or a list of friends from an application or service and transfer them into another one."

A true "one click" data portability standard would be quite threatening to the advertising models Google, Facebook and other privacy-destroying companies have deployed on the Internet. But given the hassles of individuals on their own quitting Google or similar online services, it will take tough government regulation to ultimately give users the tools to truly protect their online privacy.