In an op-ed written for the New York Times, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai has defended his company’s approach to privacy and user data, responding indirectly to critics who claim the company collects invasive amounts of personal information. Pichai says Google’s approach is to make privacy more democratic. He also called on the US to introduce new legislation protecting users’ data.
In the op-ed, Pichai contrasted Google’s approach to privacy with Apple’s. In a thinly veiled snipe at the iPhone-maker, Pichai said that “privacy cannot be a luxury good” that’s only available to “people who can afford to buy premium products and services.”
Apple’s Tim Cook has taken aim at Google in the past, notably telling attendees of a privacy conference in 2018 that modern technology has created a “data-industrial complex” where personal and private information is abused by platform-holders in pursuit of profit. Meanwhile, Apple has framed itself and its products as protectors of user privacy in its latest marketing blitz. The company is in a unique position to do so, since its business model is still overwhelmingly focused around selling premium devices. Even its cheapest phones, like the $749 iPhone XR, have an equivalent price to flagship handsets from other manufacturers.
In an attempt to reframe Google’s privacy credentials, Pichai emphasizes how the company collects and uses customer data responsibly. For example, he outlines how the data Google collects makes its services more useful. On an individual basis this means a service like Photos knows to group your vacation photos together into a single album. Collectively, anonymized data is aggregated and sent to Google to improve its products for everyone. Pichai claims that responsible data collection means Google can protect privacy, even as it has access to mountains of personal information.
Crucially, the CEO minimizes the ad-targeting aspects of the data Google collects, even though advertising is at the core of Google’s business model. Pichai calls it a “small subset of data” that helps to serve “relevant” ads which can be turned off, and he assures users that it doesn’t include personal data from apps like Docs or Gmail.
Google has to work a lot harder than Apple to assure everyone that it takes user privacy seriously. While Apple abandoned its push into advertising in 2011 in favor of making its money from selling hardware and, increasingly, services, most of Google’s core services are free in exchange for the user data needed to sell targeted advertising. Pichai might claim that only a “small subset of data” is used for its ad targeting, but it’s easy to be skeptical when looking at the hundreds of billions the company earns in ad revenue each year.
Big Tech is trying to define the terms and prescribe the path forward
It’s an important time for Google to promote what it sees as the privacy-aspects of its products. The tech industry as a whole has been hit with numerous privacy scandals over the past two years, and there are increasing calls for the tech giants to be broken up, more tightly regulated, or both. Last year, Democratic senators proposed new rules about how companies can collect and use personal information, and Democratic nominee hopeful Elizabeth Warren has said she wants to break up Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple if elected as president in 2020.
This shift has put tech companies on the defensive, with Big Tech trying to define the terms and prescribe the path forward. Facebook last month declared that “the future is private” and promised to reorganize its entire service around encrypted private messaging rather than its News Feed. Meanwhile, in his op-ed, Pichai calls upon US lawmakers to introduce legislation similar to the EU’s GDPR, and says that in its absence Google wants to lead the way in offering privacy protections around the world. In a choice between increased regulation and the threat of being broken up, Pichai is clearly in favor of the former.