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Spare Me The Favors
By: Tori Mends-Cole
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Doing a favor is defined as graciously doing something without the expectation of a payment or return favor. Of course, getting a favor you didn’t ask for often comes with its own strings attached and can be more of a hassle than the favor was worth in the first place. This is the predicament that the digital population faces. How? In order to give its users better and more personalized service, Google graciously scans the email contents of Gmail accounts and shares the findings with its app developers to sell ads. What a favor: To better entice people to spend their money on Google products, Google scans their emails and subsequently bombards them with corresponding ads!

That is crazy, but that’s not the only favor the digital population has to deal with. Another giant, Microsoft, is doling out its own favor. Under its Bing brand, the self-appointed Google watchdog is on a mission to expose Google’s online privacy issues; Microsoft has launched a particularly explosive public education campaign to alert Google’s 425 million users about privacy (and other) transgressions committed by Google. If you have seen the Scroogled website or any of its campaign ads, you’ll know that the subtle disses we expect in ads are gone — this is a full-frontal assault. To what end? Is this truly another [unrequested] favor in the consumer’s best interest? Or, is this just a tactic to increase its own customer base by directly enticing Google users away?

So far, reports indicate that a little more than one percent of Google’s users have switched to other providers (yes, to Bing). There seems to be very little outrage in the public about the intrusions! Perhaps few people are motivated to give up their accounts and start over. Maybe this is a case of dealing with the devil you know versus the angel you don’t. That few people have left Google for Bing is particularly interesting because Google has not gone on the defensive, except to say that scan notifications are in the terms of agreement (which people typically never read).

Whatever the Microsoft ads intend to accomplish, the bottom line is Google’s brand is getting media coverage and lots of free attention. Brand recognition for Google is very high, especially in contrast to Bing. Consider that Google is now a verb across languages. Of course also helpful is the fact that the ads stalking users are not Google directs any frustration to the ad brand, not at Google.

This much is true: several civil liberties organizations oppose this kind of targeted marketing as a violation of individual privacy. Whether the FTC ultimately decides to open a formal investigation remains to be seen. In the meantime, as the Scroogled campaigns continue, 15-year-old Google is putting on the stoic characteristics of the underdog as 34-year-old Microsoft jumps up and down screaming. People are tuned out.

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About the Author
Tori Mends-Cole is the Communications Coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union. She holds an M.A. in communication from the University of Maryland at College Park.
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