by Paul Rubell, Esq.
One of the tenets of web privacy, since its genesis in the mid 1990s, has been the opt-in/opt-out conundrum. To require a user to affirmatively take steps to opt in to a service means that the site’s default setting is “off.” In contrast, an opt-out mechanism sets the default to less-private, more-invasive, less-secure. In the opt-out modality, the user must take affirmative steps to avoid being swept into the less-private ocean.
According to the FTC, companies can select opt-in or opt-out as they wish, provided that they inform their users.
Today, Google has not only created a sea change in the way that user ratings (and potentially other commercial speech) are made available publicly. Now, in order to avoid the invasive new service, users of the search engine are required to affirmatively change their privacy or ad settings. Otherwise, their posts will be made available to the general public.
Google is informing every visitor to its homepages about its new policy; this satisfies the FTC’s namby-pamby “inform your user” requirement.
Best practices should be adopted to avoid the new policy. In addition to opting out, Google services should be used without logging in.
Users can use Google search anonymously, just like they can watch YouTube videos without being tracked. The easiest way to mitigate the risk of data compromise is to search and watch without logging in to Google or, if one is logged in to Gmail or G+, simply to remember to log out before searching or watching. Alternately, if one is logged in using one platform (say, a laptop), a search can be conducted on another platform (a phone, for instance) having a different IP address that is not logged in. Searching and watching ought to be private activities, and even without this new invasion of privacy, it makes no sense to use technology while logged in.
Even for users who do not care about protecting against publicity, caution should be taken. Hackers, identity thieves, law enforcement, and commercial pirates all crave the acquisition of private data.
Why hand it over to them on a silver platter?
Google has once more made it more difficult to maintain privacy. Best practices in industry and personal online behavior can quash this and other efforts to take freedom of privacy away.