Google wants everyone to feel good about sharing web cookies and IP addresses. And the Citizens Advice Bureau is happy to sing along.
Google has teamed up with the Citizens Advice Bureau to promote and run a campaign it's calling 'Good to Know'. The google.co.uk/goodtoknow website, Google says, offers tips and advice for 'staying more secure on the web', information about your data on the internet and 'how it [sic] makes websites more useful', your data on Google's servers and 'how it [sic] makes Google services more useful', as well as tips on how to manage your data and decide how much you want to share.
All laudable aims, but there is more than a hint of editorialising here, which makes the involvement of the CAB a problem.
I first noticed the campaign via an advert on London's underground. In it, a person searches for a plumber to fix an emergency leak. The result pops up and a tradesman is contacted. The problem? The first result is for a plumber based in New York, and the person who needs a plumber is in Brighton, Sussex. The message of the ad? If the silly old surfer had cookies enabled, and had allowed the search engine to sniff out the originating PC's IP address, good old Google would have automatically known the location of the user, and presented only local results. Simple.
I'm also, truth be told, more than happy to have advertising that is targeted at me on the basis of my web use. It beats advertising spam that has no relevance to me, and I understand the trade-off between free content and sponsorship (take a look around, reader, how could I not?).
But that's me. And there is another school of thought.
For many people cookies and location tracking are nothing more than stalking. Lots of web users feel that such activities infringe on their freedom. And whether you are tracked or not should be a matter of personal choice. According to the Google campaign, it's a simple question of making the web more useful (right) or not (wrong). Which is in itself wrong, as Google's Good To Know is so clearly pitched at people with a low level of web smarts. Throw in the involvement of the Citizens Advice Bureau – a body intended to provide information for those with nowhere else to go – and it starts to feel a little sinister.
For example, under the heading 'Your data on the web, and how it makes websites more useful' is a piece entitled 'How cookies help websites remember your preferences'. It's advice? Cookies "mean that you don't have to repeat yourself every time you go back to a website". There is, in fairness, a detailed example of the kind of information cookies store, but no hint of a counter argument – cookies allow third parties to track your web-surfing habits.
Or how about IP addresses. They 'allow (websites) to guess in what language you want to read the page or to give you content that is relevant to your location'. Entirely true, but not the whole story. And at the end of each chapter, there is an Orwellian slogan, just to hammer home the point:
"It's good to know that your IP address helps websites guess your location."
"It's good to know what's stored in a search log when you search on Google."
"It's good to know that cookies help websites remember your preferences."
Again, the information is all – so far as I can tell – factually correct. And I personally sympathise with the message. If Google wants to spend its hard-earned cash promoting the way it would like people to use the web, it is entirely entitled to do so. But the Citizens Advice Bureau's mission statement says that it 'helps people resolve their legal, money and other problems by providing free, independent and confidential advice'.
Well, Mr CAB: this is very far from independent.
You can see why Google has drafted in the support of the CAB. It gets to promote web-surfing practices that aid its bottom line, under the badge of a trusted, independent body.
But what's in it for the CAB? Its head of public affairs John Ludlow is quoted in Marketing Week thus: "We are always keen to do joint work with organisations from the commercial sector. But it has to be meaningful and it has to chime with our clients' concerns. You have to be careful and make sure that the people you are dealing with are legitimate and have the right motives."
Fair enough. It gets to promote a message it considers is fair, and Google foots the bill. But in a crippled economy in which public spending is under unprecedented pressure, keep your eyes peeled for more of these public service messages, in which he who pays the piper is strongly suggesting which tune should be played.
See also: Security Advisor