The Google Privacy Debate May Be Overblown

By Philip Bump , written on March 9, 2012

From The News Desk

In any group of 100 Americans, twenty of them don't use the Internet, even occasionally. Of the 80 who do, about eight have never used a search engine.

A reminder that while the Internet may be ubiquitous, it's not universal. For those of us who live and breathe it, who wake up with an iPhone in hand -- most Americans don't. Many Americans use the Internet casually, don't pay a great deal of attention to it, any more than they do roads or electrical wiring.

Those statistics are from Pew Internet (a project of the Pew Research Center) which this morning released Search Engine Use 2012, a survey of when and how Americans use search engines. Most popular? Google of course, preferred by 83% of searchers. 54% of searchers do so at least daily -- up from about a third in 2004.

What stands out the most is user opinion on personalized search results. Search engines often track your search requests and clicks over time so that they can refine what you're shown in an effort to make the results more helpful. Pew finds that 52% of users think the results are actually getting more relevant. Nonetheless, strong majorities of search engine users oppose search engines collecting information to rank searches: 65% because it would restrict what is seen; 73% because they feel it's an invasion of privacy.

Pew Internet breaks down these attitudes by various demographics; younger people are generally less likely to be concerned about privacy issues, for example. But they don't provide a breakdown by a more telling metric: regularity of Internet use.

Comfort level with the Internet and search engines is a sliding scale. Remember, 28% of Americans have never used a search engine. Pew finds that of the 72% who have, 16% use a search engine less than once a week. While 56% of users feel "very confident" in their ability to use a search engine, 37% feel only "somewhat confident." Perhaps most tellingly, 60% of Internet users indicated that they weren't aware of ways to limit how websites collect personal information (like deleting cookies or using site privacy settings). Given the range of comfort levels people have with search technology itself, we should certainly not be surprised at a general discomfort with a technological advancement as sophisticated as search result optimization.

Online privacy is a legitimate concern. Several weeks ago, The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal found that 104 companies were tracking his online behavior -- including Google. And Eli Pariser, former Executive Director of MoveOn, writes regularly about what he terms the "filter bubble," the idea that we increasingly see only what a computer algorithm wants us to see. These two concerns, in fact, were the ones Pew Internet asked about.

There are two ways for search engines to address the negative response those questions received. The first is to limit or stop data collection, and thereby end customized results.

The other is to wait. Not every user is at the Madrigal/Pariser/wake-up-holding-your-iPhone level of comfort with the Internet. It's possible that more regular search engine and Internet users are as worried about negative privacy implications as everyone else; without seeing that data breakdown, it's hard to tell. But given how age correlates inversely with Internet usage (younger people tend to use the Internet more), it seems more likely that more familiarity assuages concerns.

In ten years time, it's hard to believe that even 28% of Americans won't have used a search engine, much less that 10% have never been online. And it's likely that as people better understand how search engines' customization works -- and they see better results -- that concerns about privacy will recede.

And the number of people waking up clutching their iPhones will surge.

[Image Credit: Lev Radin / Shutterstock]

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