Eavesdropper: Google may soon need to pay users to watch ads

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June 8, 2020 7:00 AM

Imagine getting paid each time a company uses some data, even if in an anonymised form. The idea of paying for services may not be absurd after all.

Google, however, stands on a firmer footing.

On Wednesday, Google became the latest tech major to come under fire for violating privacy norm. A petition filed in the district court in California brought a class action suit against the search giant for tracking user information in its private browsing mode. The lawsuit contends that Google must pay $5000 per person to a million users, a total of $5 billion for violating the norms of private browsing.

Earlier this year, Facebook was asked to pay $550 million in damages for violating the Illinois Biometric Protection Act. Facebook was found violating the law by using its facial recognition without user consent. The company dragged the case to the US Supreme Court and lost.

Google, however, stands on a firmer footing. Google, in its privacy policy, categorically states that it will track some user information in private browsing. Ethically, it shouldn’t, the whole purpose of private gets defeated if tracking is not anonymized, but what other choice do users have. But this may not be a cakewalk for Google either. If the company is found extracting more than it should have, it may end up shelling a lot to make this one go away. An apology may not suffice. Google apologised last year as well for its home product listening into conversations when it should not have. Alexa was no better, Siri was similar and, well, Cortana did it too. Now, with a focus on privacy, they are as much reviled as the rest of corporates. Facebook, may have acquired more users but does not enjoy the exalted status it once did. After last years, eavesdropping scandals by all companies’ people have become warier of the big bad tech.

But not all companies are relying  on the consumer to be ignorant, some are innovating along, bringing in new models to change the way business is done. Brave, is trying to do something different. Last year, it announced that it would be parting with some of its ad revenues with users while also keeping their information on their phones. None of the data will be stored in the cloud, and the user will get paid to see ads. Although the idea is novel, there are limitations to what Brave may be able to do.

But the lawsuit, if it brings the search giant to its knees, may change the way things are done. Democratic platforms should allow users to consume products as per their choice. Although this would mean a premium for free services, I believe there is a ready market of people who will love to pay to secure their privacy. Then there are those too who would love to get free service and will be ready to part with privacy. Once companies start paying, who knows people may start paying for services like mail.

Imagine getting paid each time a company uses some data, even if in an anonymised form. The idea of paying for services may not be absurd after all. After all, a Gmail is also a good that you are consuming. So, is WhatsApp.
Consumers will also need to temper down their expectations. One cannot expect everything for free. Privacy is a trade-off getting that 15GB space, using mail and other products. The market now accords a choice. If you don’t want your data looked at buy a VPN, there are mail clients that offer just 100-300MB storage, but are very secure.
With internet of things gaining traction, there may be more data that companies will get their hands on, making users squirm as they integrate their life with more devices.

Still, for all this utopia to exist, there is one strand that will need to evolve. Payments. Until a single channel fo payment does not exist, how can companies expect to transact. More on that next week.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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