Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar

Google got its hand caught in the cookie jar last week — and this time it really does have some explaining to do.

The search giant, which derives some 97 percent of its revenues from advertising, thought it would be all right to circumvent some protections incorporated into Apple’s Safari browser so that it could better target its ads. By intentionally bypassing the default privacy settings of Apple’s Safari browser — and, as Microsoft has now asserted, Internet Explorer — Google has decided for all of us that our Web activity will be more closely tracked. They opted us in, without asking. And without a way for us to opt out. (We didn’t even know about it until the Wall Street Journal blew the lid off this last Thursday.)

On the merits, this is a pretty big deal. A class action has already been filed, and an FTC probe is almost certain. That the no-tracking settings were circumvented (and secretly) makes it easier to infer that even Google worried it might be touching a third rail. It says it wasn’t, that its intent was only to discern whether Google users were logged into Google services and that the enabling of advertising cookies was inadvertent.

But the atmospherics are horrible:

Google is the company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t be Evil.”
Google and Apple already have a pretty tortured relationship. Secretly deploying an exploit for an Apple product isn’t exactly a good-faith gesture.
Google only a month ago got some props for putting the best face possible on a big change in its privacy rules under which it now aggregates information gathered about you from one Google service with that collected from all the others you might use.
That last point in particular frames the bigger problem: We, the general Internet-using public, have an innately uneasy relationship with the “free” services we use. We vaguely understand that we are being spied upon — how else could Amazon and Netflix make such darn good suggestions? — and more or less see it as a reasonable trade-off. Then we try not to think about all the consequences of this new world order.

But this relationship is based on trust and on the ability of the big companies, that for immense profit bathe themselves in ever-deepening pools of our not-so-personal details, to keep convincing us that it’s all good. Some of them — like Google – take in sums approaching $40 billion a year, while others fancy themselves $100 billion companies — like Facebook — based on this uniquely digital-age business model: We are not only the customers, but the product.

Honestly now, nobody should be expected to understand how cookies and referrers and Adsense work. We shouldn’t have to worry about the clues and signals and anonymized information that the quants at Internet behemoths scrape so they can raise money from marketers to reach us and use that money to invent incredible, world-altering things.

But when a company like Google does something like covertly breaking though a data firewall — however righteous Google suggests the action might have been — the delicate trust imperative is jarred.

By definition, trust fills a vacuum created by the absence of verifiable facts — that is, not actually knowing for certain what the person is doing. You tell your spouse you’re working late, and if you’ve earned the right, she believes you. She doesn’t check up, doesn’t call your office line, doesn’t activate the “Find Your Friends” function secretly enabled on your iPhone.

You screw that up, and everything you do is suddenly questionable.

The line that Google crossed may not be an absolutely terrible one, and the whole affair might have been avoided — say, by being transparent. As Wired‘s Ryan Singel explains in mercifully understandable detail, it might even be argued that Safari is thwarting what we want — or at least not presenting us with a real-time opportunity to decide if Google’s going after that information was all right with us.

But Google will have a tough time making itself seem like a white knight and defender of best practices, primarily because it strayed down Evil Road.

And that leaves one wondering now: What is Google really up to when it says it’s working late?

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