Google’s Shared Endorsements and User Privacy


By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Patrick Barry.

Starting November 11th, Google will launch its new advertising feature, Shared Endorsements.

When this happens, Google Plus users may have their names, profile pictures, comments, follows, and 1+’s attached to “reviews, advertising and other commercial interests.” Google will arrange this information by default, without consenting people or compensating them for their third-party promotion.

Even now, many have expressed disapproval of Shared Endorsements, and writers have taken the effort to publish instructions about how to opt out of this feature. Some Google Plus users have even switched their personal profile pictures to photographs of Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, in protest.

The concept of Shared Endorsements is similar to Facebook’s program, Sponsored Stories, as it was originally conceived, in which Facebook users’ “likes” were plugged into to third-party advertisements and displayed to friends without any consent, payment or direct method to opt out. Advertisers paid almost $234 million between January 2011 and August 2012 for the services of Sponsored Stories, a program that offended some users so much that they sued Facebook over it. The lawsuit was settled for $20 million and Facebook’s word that they would grant users tighter control over their information.

A portion of the $20 million was used to pay back Facebook users whose “likes” were turned into nonconsensual ads. Facebook eventually stopped using this advertising format in July.

Despite the public disapproval of Facebook’s Sponsored Stories and the escalating negative reactions to Shared Endorsements, Google still plans to go forth with its new advertising platform. Google Plus has fewer users than Facebook (390 million versus the latter’s billion), however, it is tied to a wider array of additional online services – and as for the opt-out option, Google states, “This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn’t change whether your Profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play.”

Deborah C. Peel, MD, the founder of Patient Privacy Rights, shares her thoughts on Google’s Shared Endorsements and online information security with BTR.

“We think that this is really a tremendous abuse of what people expect,” Peel says about Shared Endorsements, on behalf of her non-profit organization. “When people put information out in one situation or one context, they don’t expect it to be used and repurposed in other contexts. It’s really a betrayal; it’s a breach of privacy.”

When asked about why she believes Google would use a platform like Shared Endorsements despite people’s opposition, she attributes the company’s approach to their ongoing pattern of “sneaking in changes to the privacy policy that users” are against.

“It really is an important question: why do they keep finding new ways to betray their users and turn them into pitchsters for companies?” she says. “It can’t be ignorance of what the public wants, because they’ve gotten a big push back from the people all along — and they’ve gotten slapped by the Federal Trade Commission.”

Peel reasons that it ultimately comes down to the fact that Google has found a way to make money off of using people’s private information. Even if the company offers an opt-out option for Shared Endorsements, Peel considers it to be the “wrong approach” to setting up this advertising program, as most people do not want their accounts to be used that way.

“You should be asked every time if you want to be used on your comment on whatever you posted in kind of advertisement,” she tells BTR. “This is really data theft if you think about it.”

Peel has alluded to the popularity of the Snapchat app (where users send pictures that are deleted seconds later) because it offers a platform where content is sent to one party, not preserved online, and not used for anything other than its original intended purposes.

Communicating via Snapchat, by principle, is appealing because people exercise the freedom to correspond privately. Regardless of any systematic flaws or leaks that may realistically happen with Snapchat photos, Peel argues that its attractiveness proves how young people want greater control over their information and interactions (not just Anthony Weiner).

Aside from problems like unpaid advertising and embarrassing photographs, Deborah Peel looks at the lack of internet privacy from the perspective of Patient Privacy Rights, and the dangers people face by posting their medical information online.

“Some people will upload pictures of a rash that they have, or send others intimate health information – sometimes test results, maybe even copies of X-rays — not understanding how far it goes or who’s collecting it,” says Peel.

In an age where electronic information is released and often dispersed beyond control, going online to research drugs, schedule doctors’ appointments, look up a hospital or browse medical products has the potential to release revealing or embarrassing things that individuals would never want the public to know.

For whatever information internet users put online, chances are they do not want to have it shared without their consent, whether it is restaurant recommendations, product purchases, health records, personal photographs, prescription research or telephone numbers. Regardless of whether the public approves of this, in this society, realistically, people have to monitor what they share online, for it may (and often does) wind up in unknown places.