Brief Thoughts on Google’s ‘Shared Endorsements’ Policy

Simon Davies, one of the world’s most prominent privacy advocates, has filed formal complaints across the EU concerning Google’s ‘Shared Endorsements’ policy. Per this policy, Google may use:

the images, personal data and identities of its users to construe personal endorsements published alongside the company’s advertised products across the Internet

The legality of recent changes to Google’s policies that allow the company to share personal data across all its products and services are currently being investigated by a number of EU data protection authorities. The data protection issues and violations highlighted in my complaint go the heart of many of the aspects under investigation. Indeed the Shared Endorsements policy is made possible only through company-wide amalgamation of personal data.

In effect, Davies argues that the amalgamation of Google’s services under the company’s harmonized privacy policy/data pooling policy may be illegal and that, moreover, individuals may not know that their images and comments might be revealed to people they know upon leaving reviews of products and services in Google-owned environments.

Admittedly, I find that the shared pooling of information across my networks can be incredibly helpful (e.g. highlighting the reviews/opinions of people I know concerning various subjects and topics). Knowing that a colleague with whom I share book interests likes a book is more helpful to me than a review from someone that I don’t know. At the same time, I review products that I’ve purchased online quite often: given how helpful others’ reviews can be when I’m purchasing a product it seems like a courtesy to provide information into a private-commons. So, while I would prefer a review from a colleague I’m perfectly willing to make purchasing decisions based on what absolute strangers say/write as well.

The more significant issue with Google’s products, in my opinion, emerges from how the company’s business decisions are narrowing the range of commentary individuals may engage in. Such self-censorship is largely attributable to linking all comments to a person’s real name/public identity. Personally, this means that I often avoid leaving some book reviews, not because I’m ‘ashamed’ of the review but because I worry about whether it could detrimentally affect my future publishing opportunities. My reviews are (I think) reasonably high quality and fair but I refuse to leave some without some degree of pseudonymity. There is no reason to believe that my decision is unique: those in similar, tight-knit, industries likely experience similar pressures to avoid reviewing/commenting on some products, despite being experts concerning the product(s) in question.

I am not from  a ‘marginalized’ or ‘repressed’ social population, and Google is seemingly deploying platforms that are meant to serve people like me: people who freely review products online and who find it acceptable that such reviews are publicly shared and oftentimes highlighted to specific users. And yet, even I avoid saying certain (legal) things based on the (unknown) consequences linked to such speech acts. Despite being reasonably savvy concerning the collection, use, and sharing of personal information even I do not fully appreciate or understand how Google collects, retains, processes, or disseminates information I provide to the company. If even I am censoring legitimate speech because of the vicissitudes of Google’s privacy policies and uncertainties associated with providing content on their platforms then there is (to my mind) a very serious problem at the very base of the company’s contemporary data-integration and disclosure operations.