Google’s 11/11 Alert

Come 11 November, 2013 and Google would implement some major changes in its Terms of Service. The moot question is how many people are actually aware of the current Terms of Service to bother about the updates? Well, there are a sizeable number of people like me who do care and actually go through the updates. So, here is a brief for the benefit of those who are so busy using Google and its myriad of services that, ironically, they do not have time to pay heed to what Google itself is trying to tell them. Such is human behaviour! (And, I sheepishly admit am no different on several such occasions.)

So, what is the brouhaha about? Google’s latest Terms of Service update talks about three major things – shared endorsements; reminder about how to use one’s mobile devices safely; and details on the importance of keeping one’s password confidential. Are not the last two points so commonplace that even a kid would be able to vouch for their importance? Without any doubt yes, but do not the most intelligent species of all living beings (human beings, just in case the joke was lost on you), require constant reminders and nudging to do the obvious? Perhaps, Google is doing just that. So, do not forget to surf the online waters, safely.

Am sure, for the uninitiated, the urge to Google the term, ‘shared endorsements’ must have been very strong, so much so that you would have actually Googled it before returning to the article. Well, am fine, as long as you came back!

Let us address the most contentious issue now. If you are thinking, “Why contentious?,” then you must be a part of the minority group in this e-world, who would either not be aware of shared endorsements, or would not have Googled about it already. Here is an overview, nonetheless.

According to Google, to ensure that its users’ recommendations reach the people they care about, Google sometimes displays user reviews, recommendations and other relevant activities throughout its products and services. Users’ profile names and photos could also appear with their recommendations. This is what it terms as ‘shared endorsements’. And, this is what would come into effect from 11 November, 2013. Does it sound scary? Is it an intrusion into one’s privacy? Is it warranted? Is it for the good of millions of Google users? Let us explore further.

Before going into the merits or demerits of the case, Google needs to be praised for one thing for sure – its transparency. Not only has Google informed its users well in advance, it has also made sure that this information is displayed prominently on its homepage. To ensure that even this prominent display of information does not go unnoticed, Google has made the information bar, action-oriented. Only when the user clicks ‘Learn More’ or ‘Got It’ button next to the alert – “Hi there. Our new Terms of Service update how we display your information in content & ads.” – does it disappear. Kudos to Google for its transparency; something that it has always done whenever it has to announce any important updates to its Terms of Service!

Now coming to the real question – are shared endorsements good or bad for its users? Well, the answer is “depends,” an answer quite popular with ‘managers’ in the corporate world. They are good for the people who want their share of publicity in the e-world. To be featured in some Google search without actually doing anything substantial, or without paying for it, can give some people a high! They are also good for people who want to establish themselves as an expert in some area. By commenting or +1ing some online items, one can get an opportunity to feature in Google searches often, and over a period of time create a substantial portfolio of work; thereby increasing the probability of being seen as an expert in the area.

However, like everything in the e-world, this too has a flip side. Most people do not really understand the terms, or features, or repercussions of their online activities. Neither do they know, nor do they care. So whatever their default settings are, they just let them be. It is people like these that are at risk the most. The second category of people is of those who are aware, or become aware of such an alert (through articles like this, to shamelessly take some credit). Google, like all responsible online service providers, has provided an option to opt out of being featured in shared endorsements. However, here again, there are some catches. For example, turning the shared endorsements in ads settings to “off” may not necessarily change whether one’s profile name and photo gets displayed in other places such as Google Play. Thus, not only does one need to change the default settings, one also needs to read the fine print. If only the fine print in the real world was not enough!

So, all the Google users out there, which could cover the entire online universe in all likelihood, keep your eyes open at all times when you do something. It is you and only you who can make yourself safe online. The next time you see some information bar popping up on the Google homepage, do not dismiss it as trivial. There could be something really important out there. After all, a stitch in time saves nine.

Until the next Google alert…

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About the Author: Shobhika Puri

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