Google’s Privacy Dashboard: Another Major Step Forward in User Empowerment & Transparency

by on November 5, 2009 · 8 comments

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot Privacy Dashboard, so hot,
I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder Treason Privacy Dashboard
Should ever be forgot.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist, this being Guy Fawkes day (a major traditional holiday for Britons and, more recently, geeky American libertarians such as myself, who dress up as V for Vendetta for Halloween). Google’s announcement of its Privacy Dashboard (TechCrunch) is a major step forward in both informing users about what data Google has tied to their account in each of Google’s many products and in empowering users to easily manage their privacy settings for each product. If users decide they’d rather “take their ball and go home,” they can do that, too, by simply deleting their data.

Users can access the dashboard at (duh). Or, from the Google homepage, you just have to:

  1. Click on Settings at the top right > Google Account Settings
  2. Click on “View data stored with this account” next to “Dashboard”

Once you log-in (for extra security), you can:

  1. See what data is associated with your account in 23 of Google’s products (Google notes that it will incorporate its 18 other products in the near future).
  2. Directly access the privacy management settings for that account.
  3. Access more information—”Links to relevant help articles and information pages.”

Some critics have complained in the past that it’s too hard to find privacy settings links on Google and other sites. Indeed, Google could have made it easier—and now they have! Google has taken another major step forward in user education and empowerment—just as it pioneered transparency into its interest-based advertising product with the Ad Preference Manager launched in March (which I applauded here). (The Dashboard is only for data tied to a user’s Google account, while the APM is tied only to a cookie on the user’s computer.)

The Dashboard really couldn’t be much easier to use—yet we can be sure it won’t be good enough for some privacy zealots who arrogantly presume that their fellow homo sapiens are basically vegetables with hair—unable to use any tool online, no matter how simple, and barely able to tie their own shoelaces without government reminding them how. The principled alternative is to “Trust People & Empower Them.” Because privacy is so profoundly subjective and because there is an inherent trade-off between clamping down on data and the many benefits enjoyed by Internet users from sharing their data, Adam Thierer and I have argued for that “household standards” set by individuals should trump “community standards” imposed on everyone from above:

In an ideal world, adults would be fully empowered to tailor speech and privacy decisions to their own values and preferences. Specifically, in an ideal world, adults (and parents) would have (1) the information necessary to make informed decisions and (2) the tools and methods necessary to act upon that information. Importantly, those tools and methods would give them the ability to not only block the things they don’t like—objectionable content, annoying ads or the collection of data about them—while also finding the things they want.

The Dashboard is exactly the kind of user empowerment tool we should be focusing on as a less restrictive—and probably more effective—alternative to one-size-fits-all government regulation of online data use and collection. (We’ve been cataloging other “Privacy Solutions” here.) Google has informed users about what it knows and given them the ability to easily manage privacy for themselves—thus making transparency highly “actionable.” What more could anyone want? Sure, it requires a wee bit of effort from users, but, to paraphrase the (probably) apocryphal Thomas Jefferson saying (and as V  himself might say), the “Price of Freedom Privacy is Eternal Vigilence.” What’s important is that Google, Facebook and other online companies work to lower that “price” through innovation and good UI design.

Some advocates of government restrictions on online data collection and use may applaud Google’s innovation but claim that it happened only because FTC regulators and lawmakers have turned up the heat on Google and other online operators. While the threat of regulation surely does increase the pressure for many companies to improve their user education and empowerment tools, I doubt that played much role in Google’s decision to launch this product. Instead, Google seems to be responding again and again to reputational incentives. With their much-trumpeted promise “not to be evil,” they’ve set high expectations for ongoing improvement in transparency, user control, data portability, etc. Simply by virtue of their size, they will always be the object of paranoia—but that “Googlephobia” plays a critical role in getting them to keep raising the bar. In turn, the standards set by Google up the ante for the rest of the industry. That’s what self-regulation really means: a dynamic process of competition among rivals for our trust online. That system takes time, but I think advocates of a more regulatory approach should bear a pretty high burden to justify why they think bureaucratic diktaks would work better for consumers in the long-term. I certainly don’t! Instead, I look forward to seeing how other companies respond, and how Google improves its Dashboard in the future.

Oied to their account

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