Google vs Apple: How Business Models Drive Disrespect vs Respect for Privacy

How business models are aligned or not with users’ privacy interests, will be spotlighted at the Senate Judiciary hearing Tuesday on “Protecting Mobile Privacy” featuring Google and Apple officials as witnesses.

  • Expect the term “privacy conflict of interest” to become more common and important as companies who don’t work for users, hurtle into the future increasingly tracking, analyzing and using users’ private information and behavior without users’ meaningful consent.

While the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy will hear from both Google and Apple witnesses on how their companies handle users’ WiFi location data, their testimony will provide stark contrast in the companies’ privacy conflicts of interests.

Google vs Apple concerning alignment with users’ interests:

First, 97% of Google’s ~$30b in annual revenues comes from advertisers, whereas ~99% of Apple’s ~$87b in annual revenue comes directly from customers who buy and use Apple’s products and services.

  • Simply Google works for advertisers whose business interest is to exploit users’ privacy to create more effective ads, while Apple’s business interest is to best serve their customers so their paying customers remain their paying customers.
  • Google’s business model has a massive inherent privacy conflict of interest, while Apple’s business model is aligned with customers.

Second, Google has no customer service or retail outlets to serve users because they don’t work for users, whereas Apple has a large customer service operation and hundreds of consumer-friendly retail stores.

Third, concerning the WiFi location information at question in the hearing, Google Android devices send location information on users back to Google’s data centers roughly a thousand times a day, where it is integrated with other private information as part of an extensive user advertising profile.

  • On the other hand, Apple stored the location information on the user’s device not back at Apple’s data centers.

Fourth, concerning the propriety of tracking mobile device users without their meaningful permission, Google’s position communicated by spokespeople is that Google does not track individuals (because it anonymizes the data), and Google allows users to opt out.

  • In stark contrast, Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs explicitly asserted “we don’t track anyone” and that Apple has no intention to track users, and that they will quickly issue a software update to fix “the bug” that had created and saved location data on users’ devices.
  • Simply, Google’s response is we have done nothing wrong and are not doing anything about it, while Apple readily acknowledged they screwed up and were fully committed to fixing it as rapidly as possible.

Lastly, Google is the only major browser provider that opposes Do Not Track legislation — like has been passed in the California Senate Committee, like Senate Commerce Chairman Rockefeller is introducing next week, and like Congressmen Barton and Markey plan to introduce in the House — whereas Apple offers a Do Not track capability on its Safari browser like all other major browser providers do.

In sum, this latest Google privacy scandal, WiSpy II, and the Senate hearing that will spotlight it for the public, puts the concept of “privacy conflict of interest” at center stage of the privacy debate.

The starkly different Google and Apple business model examples show that who a company works for drives whether it is in that company’s business interest to disrespect or respect users’ privacy.

  • At a minimum, companies like Google, which have inherent privacy conflicts of interest, have a much greater responsibility to fairly represent their business interests and privacy conflicts  to consumers.
    • Tellingly, Google’s privacy conflicts of interest appear to be part of the reason the FTC charged Google with “deceptive privacy practices” in March.

In a word, who would you more likely trust with your privacy? A company you don’t pay at all, or a company that you pay a lot?

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