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Google mulled offering paid-for no-logging private Search subscription

In 2018, concerned about the public’s perception of its privacy practices, Google leaders proposed a subscription-based private Search service, one that doesn’t log queries and other data.

According to testimony in Google’s ongoing antitrust case, Danny Sullivan, public liaison for Google Search, endorsed the subscription idea in an email discussion with Meredith Hoffer, then director of marketing for Google Search, and numerous other Chocolate Factory executives including the then-head of Search Ben Gomes, who forwarded the discussion to a subset of participants.

Sullivan argued that if Google wants to win over search users who resent being data-mined, “we need to offer them our own alternative to ourselves.”

The email [PDF] is part of a discussion thread released on Wednesday by the US Department of Justice amid its antitrust trial over Google Search. The government contends that Google has unlawfully monopolized the search advertising market through a series of exclusionary deals with rivals, a charge Google denies. The trial began on September 12 and is scheduled to conclude in mid-November.

The discussion in the email illuminates Google’s desire to avoid being seen in the company of Facebook, now living under the name Meta.

Google offers to alert netizens when their personal info shows up in Search


Matt Holden, then a senior product manager for Google Search, addressed internal concerns on the matter after a 2018 article in Wired entitled “The Privacy Battle to Save Google From Itself,” and how the public sees Google in relation to its peers.

“Most of my family is distrustful of both Facebook and Google (both are big ad-based tech companies) and aren’t going to grasp nuanced differences in our products, cultures, or business models,” Holden wrote.

“There’s some fear of Amazon eating brick-and-mortar, but not as much anxiety about the consumer service itself (possibly because the commerce biz model is easier to understand than ‘ads’). MSFT is bigger than GOOG in market cap, but people are surprised to learn that – massive revenue from businesses, but not perceived as strong or scary in consumers’ minds. Apple is expensive and elitist, but associated with Steve Jobs and high-end design and status and an iconic brand.”

Holden went on to muse about how Google could do more to put a “wedge” between itself and Facebook in terms of public perception.

Hoffer replied by conceding that it’s a tough narrative to counter. “At heart it comes off that Google’s incentives are not aligned with users’ best interests,” she wrote, and wondered aloud about offering an ad-free paid subscription to Google Search.

$10 per month buys you, I don’t know, 1,000 searches

Sullivan, as noted above, supported the possibility of a private, paid version of Google Search.

“$10 per month buys you, I don’t know, 1,000 searches,” he suggested. “Or maybe it’s much more – because maybe it should be more. People have no idea what the pricing was like when you’d have to pay to use services like Lexis/Nexis.”

And he also argued for having Google default to deleting search history data.

“Set the default that we automatically delete search history after six months, a year or 18 months,” he wrote. “Whatever – the fact that we’d automatically delete data speaks volumes that no, we don’t want to suck up all your data and keep it forever. It’s so unimportant to our supposed ‘got to profile you all because we’re an ad monster’ profile that we’re not going to keep it.”

The eternal privacy question

This has been an ongoing issue at the web giant.

To mark International Data Privacy Day in 2021, Lorraine Twohill, chief marketing officer at Google, addressed concerns about the need to make “meaningful change” on privacy in an email [PDF] sent to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, and other executives.

Twohill suggestions include things like increasing user-facing reassurances about how Google products use data. “No more unexplained features or cross-product data usage that freaks a user out,” she said. And she called for the ad biz to live up to its privacy principles. That means giving users control over their data and transparency in how data gets used, she said.

Twohill also suggested making Incognito mode private, because it really isn’t – an allegation coincidentally in a lawsuit filed that year against the company. All Incognito mode really does in effect is let you browse sites as if you were logged out of them, no browser history is recorded, and no previously stored cookies are used and none saved after the session. The sites you visit while in that mode, however, can find some other ways to track you, or just be aware of what someone, from your IP address, is looking at.

We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private

“We are limited in how strongly we can market Incognito because it’s not truly private, thus requiring really fuzzy, hedging language that is almost more damaging,” she wrote.

Twohill’s email, released by the Dept of Justice, includes various other interesting details but perhaps none more startling than the admission that Google has no idea about the age of 100 million users.

“We do not currently know who are kids (approx. 100m accounts are presumably used by underage users),” she wrote. “We therefore need to supercharge our age verification efforts (accelerate project Audubon).”

Touching on another aspect of the case, a December 5, 2018 email [PDF] from Adrian Perica (Apple) to John Giannandrea (currently Apple’s senior vice president of Machine Learning and AI Strategy) includes a redacted chart that outlines several search advertising scenarios, including Apple partnering with Microsoft to operate its Bing search engine and acquiring Bing to compete against Google Search directly.

No such deal materialized, which underscores the Department of Justice’s argument that the billions Google pays to be the default search engine in various browsers and applications – $26.3 billion in 2021 alone – affects the emergence of competitive products.

The Register asked Google whether anyone wished to elaborate on these internal discussions. The search goliath declined to comment, but provided a copy of testimony on Monday from Jen Fitzpatrick, SVP of core systems and experiences.

“One of the things we really find to be true with privacy, it’s not a one-size-fits all thing,” Fitzpatrick said.

“That some people, you know, sort of take it to an extreme and want very, very, you know, sort of, you know, ironclad control over what personal data that they’re willing to put in an online context in the first place. Whereas, other people would happily have a little bit more of their personal shared with their product and service, if it means they get more utility out.”

Google said it now does delete user data – location history, and web activity, for instance – by default, though Fitzpatrick said the super-corp has chosen to provide an auto-deletion time range rather than a set retention period.

“Ultimately, we felt like the complexity of having to specify an arbitrary time frame made the experience actually hard to use by default, and that as we, again, did user research, people generally were comfortable with broad time ranges,” she explained.

“We didn’t see a lot of, you know, sort of deep user demand for that real customization. What we do let you do is delete any custom range you want.”

And with regard to Twohill’s suggestions, Fitzpatrick said, “There are, as you can see, many, many, many suggestions in this document from Ms Twohill, some of which were already in progress when she wrote it, some of which have subsequently been implemented, and some of which the many expert teams who worked on these, you know, have decided not to pursue.”

A request to confirm that 100 million user account figure cited by Twohill and to elaborate on the current status of Project Audubon went unanswered. ®

In other Google news…

  • Googlers have signed an open letter accusing the giant of limiting pro-Palestinian speech plus objecting to its $1.2 billion Project Nimbus supply contract to Israel.
  • Google and Euro telcos want the European Commission to treat Apple iMessage as a “core” service, requiring the app to be compatible with rivals.
  • Android has had its usual monthly security updates for November, including a fix for that storage bug we wrote about.

source: The Register