Notes EM: My FT oped: Google Revolution Isn’t Worth Our Privacy


Google’s intrusion into the physical world means that, were its privacy policy to stay in place and cover self-driving cars and Google Glass, our internet searches might be linked to our driving routes, while our favourite cat videos might be linked to the actual cats we see in the streets. It also means that everything that Google already knows about us based on our search, email and calendar would enable it to serve us ads linked to the actual physical products and establishments we encounter via Google Glass.

For many this may be a very enticing future. We can have it, but we must also find a way to know – in great detail, not just in summary form – what happens to our data once we share it with Google, and to retain some control over what it can track and for how long.

It would also help if one could drive through the neighbourhood in one of Google’s autonomous vehicles without having to log into Google Plus, the company’s social network, or any other Google service.

The European regulators are not planning to thwart Google’s agenda or nip innovation in the bud. This is an unflattering portrayal that might benefit Google’s lobbying efforts but has no bearing in reality. Quite the opposite: it is only by taking full stock of the revolutionary nature of Google’s agenda that we can get the company to act more responsibly towards its users.

I think that it’s critically important to recognize just what the regulators are trying to establish: some kind of line in the sand, a line that identifies practices that move against the ethos and civil culture of particular nations. There isn’t anythingnecessarily wrong with this approach to governance. The EU’s approach suggests a deeper engagement with technology than some other nations, insofar as some regulators are questioning technical developments and potentialities on the basis of a legally-instantiated series of normative rights.

Winner, writing all the way back 1986 in his book The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology, recognized that frank discussions around technology and the socio-political norms embedded in it are critical to a functioning democracy. The decisions we make with regards to technical systems can have far-reaching consequences, insofar as (some) technologies become ‘necessary’ over time because of sunk costs, network effects, and their relative positioning compared to competing products. Critically, technologies aren’t neutral: they are shaped within a social framework that is crusted with power relationships. As a consequence, it behooves us to think about how technologies enable particular power relations and whether they are relates that we’re comfortable asserting anew, or reaffirming again.

(If you’re interested in reading some of Winner’s stuff, check out his essay, “Do Artifacts Have Politics.”)