Google mulled building private search in wake of tech scandal – Technology News


Alphabet Inc.’s Google considered creating a more private way to search the internet that wouldn’t track the sites users visited, according to testimony from a senior vice president in the government’s landmark antitrust case against the company.

The year was 2019 and Google was in defense mode as tech companies dealt with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users was secretly scraped and mined for voter insights.

Google ultimately rejected the idea, according to testimony from Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at the company. In part, that was because of how a so-called Incognito Google could hurt the company’s advertising revenue.

“One of the concerns was if Google adopted that proposal, users would pick it and Google would lose billions of dollars in revenue, correct?” Justice Department lawyer Joshua Hafenbrack asked Raghavan in federal court in Washington.

“That was only one of the concerns,” Raghavan said. The company also thought about the difficulty in trying to explain to users the difference between Incognito search and Incognito mode in the Chrome browser, which doesn’t track website visit history, he said.

The anecdote represents a rare view into how one of the world’s most powerful tech companies deals with a fundamental tension between user privacy and its business interests. In the biggest tech monopoly trial of the last two decades, lawyers for the Justice Department have argued that the volume of search query data people generate for Google is the lifeblood of the company’s success. Data is “oxygen for a search engine,” said Kenneth Dintzer, the DOJ’s lead lawyer, in an opening statement for the trial.

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The government’s case centers on the idea that Google illegally maintains a monopoly in online search by blocking rivals from effectively competing. Google argues that companies and users choose its service as their default search engine because it’s the best one.

But under questioning by Hafenbrack, Raghavan testified that Google’s decision to scuttle a standalone incognito search engine was due in part to the fact that it would lose advertising revenue if there was less user data feeding into its system.

Consumer privacy online was of heightened interest at the time because of Cambridge Analytica. The consulting firm was hired by former President Donald Trump’s campaign and obtained Facebook user data to target advertising. In July 2019, Facebook – since renamed Meta Platforms Inc. – paid a record $5 billion fine over the episode. Google chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress in December 2018, pledging the company would “do better” to help users understand their online privacy choices.

Pichai later took to the pages of the New York Times in a May 2019 op-ed to promise that privacy was “not a luxury good” and highlighting a recent feature that made it easier for users to automatically delete their information from Google.

In testimony at the trial this week, Raghavan said that prior to that change, Google kept a user’s search history indefinitely. Today, it keeps the information for only 18 months.

In June 2019, Google’s search team proposed making a number of changes to Google’s search product in response to private search engine DuckDuckGo, including not retaining information on a users’ location and search history. Benedict Gomes, then Google’s head of search, advocated for making changes, but Raghavan – who then headed search advertising – testified that he wasn’t persuaded they were necessary.

In an email exchange at the time, Gomes said that privacy is a “sensitive search spot” and an “important positioning point that is a potential threat.”

In what he agreed was a “sharply” worded email, Raghavan told Gomes: “I agree that there’s something worth exploring in this space of private search. But the working teams have to do MUCH more careful work before wasting our valuable time. I want to see evidence that there’s a real impact on Google users, attributable to this factor.”

Raghavan said he was “seeking far more careful data and analysis.”

Google didn’t adopt the proposal, Raghavan said, though it did eventually create a feature to allow a user to delete their last 15 minutes of search history.

DOJ’s Hafenbrack noted that Google surveyed consumers on how long they wanted the tech company to keep data and a majority said one month. Raghavan said he didn’t recall.

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