The privacy paradox and Google

At the New York Times BITS blog, Brad Stone reports on a study about to be released by George Loewenstein and several other Carnegie Mellon researchers about people’s parodoxical attitudes towards privacy and personal information.  In one experiment, some people were given express assurances of privacy whereas others were given none.  Strangely, the people given no assurances of privacy were twice as likely to admit to copying someone else’s homework.

In one sense, that’s paradoxical because assurances of privacy are intended to foster open communications, as with the attorney-client privilege.  But in another sense, the behavior is not paradoxical at all.  Express assurances of privacy may serve the socially useful prophylactic purpose — albeit sometimes unintended — of reminding people of the risks of volunteering personal information.  Even if people don’t really read privacy policies, seeing a conspicuous “privacy policy” link may serve as a cold glass of water to the face, reminding people that they are volunteering personal information, and that they should look before they leap.

That brings to mind the scrutiny Google has recently garnered for its refusal to put a conspicuous link to its privacy policy on its homepage.  Is Google concerned that a link will remind people of the implications of continually using the myriad Google services?  C’mon.  How many times did you use Google today?  And when, if ever, did you think about how much information Google may have about you?  As noted by The Register,

The company still indexes your email.  It still stores your IP address alongside your search history for at least 18 to 24 months.  And if it does “anonymize” your IP address after 24 months – and that’s a big if – it still refuses to anonymize the whole thing.

So if conspicuous reminders of privacy concerns are important, why won’t Google put a simple link on its homepage?  According to another post at BITS, a Google competitor stated that Google co-founder Larry Page “didn’t want a privacy link ‘on that beautiful clean home page.'”

I rather doubt that Page’s concerns are fueled by aesthetics.  One more link won’t change the site’s minimalistic look.  But the starkness of the Google homepage may largely explain why Google doesn’t want that link.  On most e-commerce sites, the visual clutter — think Yahoo — makes it unlikely that a privacy policy link will stand out.  But on Google’s “beautiful clean home page,” such a link would be significantly more conspicuous.

And paradoxically, perhaps more likely to serve its purpose.

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