Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services,” declared Sundar Pichai, the chief executive officer of Google, in a New York Times op-ed this week. “Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world.”
Pichai’s column, published in conjunction with Google’s annual developer conference, was a two-pronged public relations offensive: an attempt by the company that has been one of the chief architects and primary beneficiaries of digital surveillance to wrap itself in the mantle of privacy, while simultaneously taking a swipe at one of its competitors.
In Silicon Valley, “privacy” is in 2019 what reclaimed wood was in 2010: a must-have design feature that signals a certain degree of authenticity and hipness and could also double as a weapon in a pinch.
Pichai’s broadside, in case you’re not attuned to the subtleties of tech CEO shade, was aimed at Apple. Google debuted a $399 smartphone on Tuesday, and it wants to rub that price point in the face of the iPhone maker, whose devices start at significantly higher prices.
| In an op-ed this week, Google’s Sundar Pichai wrote ‘privacy cannot be a luxury good’. Photograph: Josh Edelson/Getty Images
It’s also a belated riposte to Apple’s decision to commission a massive billboard reading, “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone”, in Las Vegas during the annual consumer tech conference CES this January. The billboard, described by the Washington Post as a “not-so-subtle shot at Google”, followed years of critiques by the Apple chief, Tim Cook, of the data-hungry business models of both Google and Facebook.
Of course, Facebook’s reputation on privacy issues is so awful that Mark Zuckerberg’s recent attempt to joke about it fell flat in front of an audience of the company’s own employees and developers. But that hasn’t stopped Facebook from trying to stake its own claim to the privacy moral high ground. Delivering his keynote address at the company’s annual developer conference last week, Zuckerberg stood before a giant screen reading, “The future is private”, while expounding on his plan to integrate Facebook’s various messaging apps into one – a move that many critics see as a cynical attempt to preempt antitrust action.
Central to the rollout of Facebook’s pivot to “privacy” has been the company’s own critique of Apple: one of the core principles of the new “privacy-focused platform” is a commitment not to “store sensitive data in countries with weak records on human rights like privacy and freedom of expression in order to protect data from being improperly accessed”.
Tech shade translated: Apple stores some data in China, and Facebook doesn’t, ergo Facebook is better on privacy than Apple. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain holding 10 years of press clippings detailing Facebook’s desperate attempts to enter the Chinese market.
|Mark Zuckerberg at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference in April. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA
Rounding out the circular firing squad is Microsoft, which has also courted positive publicity with bold rhetoric on privacy, such as a call for regulation of facial recognition technology. Microsoft’s stance sounded great, right up until it started lobbying against regulation of facial recognition technology in its home state of Washington.
So are any of these tech companies actually good on privacy? Or are they all just craven opportunists latching onto the buzzword of the day?
“It reminds me of when I see guys who get credit for ‘respecting women,’” said Ed Zitron, a veteran of tech industry PR. “They get credit for the smallest thing. ‘Privacy’ is the woke guy on Twitter of Silicon Valley.”
In large part, it depends on what aspects of privacy you care most about. In his op-ed, Pichai emphasized Google’s ability to “protect your information”, noted Lindsey Barrett, a teaching fellow and staff attorney at Georgetown’s Communications and Technology Clinic.The Guardian
“For a company like Google, all the incentives are aligned to protect their information, and therefore protect your information, but where the incentives diverge is on collection and use,” Barrett said. “None of the big companies that are trying to position themselves as strong on privacy have been willing to play ball on regulation that goes against their business interest or that would change their business models.”
Facebook may be embracing end-to-end encryption, but it still hasn’t rolled out the “clear history” tool it promised over a year ago – a feature it has admitted will harm its advertising revenues. Apple may be correct that selling products instead of advertisements is a more privacy-friendly business model, but its work in China is still cause for legitimate concern. Google may earn praise for rolling out an “incognito mode” for using Google Maps, but it’s still worth asking why this wasn’t the default from the beginning.
Still, Zitron pointed out that for Google and Apple, privacy as PR is working, with headlines in the tech press this week such as, “Facebook talked privacy, Google actually built it.”
“People are eating it up,” Zitron said. “There’s a narrative here, where you have the bad guy, which is Facebook, and now you have Apple and Google stepping in to say we’re the good guys.”
“They’re not actually caring about privacy,” he added. “They’re just trying to get associated with the idea of privacy, and it’s working. Hook, line, and sinker.”