Now, the headline certainly is attention-grabbing, but the news alert email had a more sinister headline: “Google Circumvented Web-Privacy Safeguards.”
Wow! What’s going on here?
Turns out, no one looks good in this story, but certainly the Journal feels like they’ve got Google in a “gotcha” moment. As usual, I think there’s a lot more to the story, and while I’m Thinking Out Loud right now, and pretty sure there’s a lot more than I can currently grok, there’s something I just gotta say.
First, the details. Here’s the lead in the Journal’s story, which requires a login/registration:
“Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked.”
Now, from what I can tell, the first part of that story is true – Google and many others have figured out ways to get around Apple’s default settings on Safari in iOS – the only browser that comes with iOS, a browser that, in my experience, has never asked me what kind of privacy settings I wanted, nor did it ask if I wanted to share my data with anyone else (I do, it turns out, for any number of perfectly good reasons). Apple assumes that I agree with Apple’s point of view on “privacy,” which, I must say, is ridiculous on its face, because the idea of a large corporation (Apple is the largest, in fact) determining in advance what I might want to do with my data is pretty much the opposite of “privacy.”
Then again, Apple decided I hated Flash, too, so I shouldn’t be that surprised, right?
But to the point, Google circumvented Safari’s default settings by using some trickery described in this WSJ blog post, which reports the main reason Google did what it did was so that it could know if a user was a Google+ member, and if so (or even if not so), it could show that user Google+ enhanced ads via AdSense.
In short, Apple’s mobile version of Safari broke with common web practice, and as a result, it broke Google’s normal approach to engaging with consumers. Was Google’s “normal approach” wrong? Well, I suppose that’s a debate worth having – it’s currently standard practice and the backbone of the entire web advertising ecosystem – but the Journal doesn’t bother to go into those details. One can debate whether setting cookies should happen by default – but the fact is, that’s how it’s done on the open web.
The Journal article does later acknowledge, though not in a way that a reasonable reader would interpret as meaningful, that the mobile version of Safari has “default” (ie not user activated) settings that prevent Google and others (like ad giant WPP) to track user behavior the way they do on the “normal” Web. That’s a far cry from the Journal’s lead paragraph, which again, states Google bypassed the “the privacy settings of millions of people.” So when is a privacy setting really a privacy setting, I wonder? When Apple makes it so?
Since this story has broken, Google has discontinued its practice, making it look even worse, of course.
But let’s step back a second here and ask: why do you think Apple has made it impossible for advertising-driven companies like Google to execute what are industry standard practices on the open web (dropping cookies and tracking behavior so as to provide relevant services and advertising)? Do you think it’s because Apple cares deeply about your privacy?
Or perhaps it’s because Apple considers anyone using iOS, even if they’re browsing the web, as “Apple’s customer,” and wants to throttle potential competitors, insuring that it’s impossible to access to “Apple’s” audiences using iOS in any sophisticated fashion? Might it be possible that Apple is using data as its weapon, dressed up in the PR friendly clothing of ”privacy protection” for users?
That’s at least a credible idea, I’d argue.
I don’t know, but when I bought an iPhone, I didn’t think I was singing up as an active recruit in Apple’s war on the open web. I just thought I was getting “the Internet in my pocket” – which was Apple’s initial marketing pitch for the device. What I didn’t realize was that it was “the Internet, as Apple wishes to understand it, in my pocket.”
It’d be nice if the Journal wasn’t so caught up in its own “privacy scoop” that it paused to wonder if perhaps Apple has an agenda here as well. I’m not arguing Google doesn’t have an agenda – it clearly does. I’m as saddened as the next guy about how Google has broken search in its relentless pursuit of beating Facebook, among others.
In this case, what Google and others have done sure sounds wrong – if you’ve going to resort to tricking a browser into offering up information designated by default as private, you need to somehow message the user and explain what’s going on. Then again, in the open web, you don’t have to – most browsers let you set cookies by default. In iOS within Safari, perhaps such messaging is technically impossible, I don’t know. But these shenanigans are predictable, given the dynamic of the current food fight between Google, Apple, Facebook, and others. It’s one more example of the sad state of the Internet given the war between the Internet Big Five. And it’s only going to get worse, before, I hope, it gets better again.
Now, here’s my caveat: I haven’t been able to do any reporting on this, given it’s 11 pm in Texas and I’ve got meetings in the morning. But I’m sure curious as to the real story here. I don’t think the sensational headlines from the Journal get to the core of it. I’ll depend on you, fair readers, to enlighten us all on what you think is really going on.