Google needs to apologise for violating the trust of its users once again

  • An Associated Press investigation recently discovered that Google still collects its users’ location data even if they have their Location History turned off.
  • After the report was published, Google quietly updated its help page to describe how location settings work.
  • Previously, the page said “with Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored.”
  • Now, the page says, “This setting does not affect other location services on your device,” adding that “some location data may be saved as part of your activity on other services, like Search and Maps.”
  • The quiet changing of false information is a major violation of users’ trust.
  • Google needs to do better.

Google this week acknowledged that it quietly tracks its users’ locations, even if those people turn off their Location History – a clarification that came in the wake of an Associated Press investigation.

It’s a major violation of users’ trust.

And yet, nothing is going to happen as a result of this episode.

It’s happened before

Google has a history of bending the rules:

  • In 2010, Google’s Street View cars were caught eavesdropping on people’s Wi-Fi connections.
  • In 2011, Google agreed to forfeit $US500 million after a criminal investigation by the Justice Department found that Google illegally allowed advertisements from online Canadian pharmacies to sell their products in the US.
  • In 2012, Google circumvented the no-cookies policy on Apple’s Safari web browser and paid a $US22.5 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission as a result.

Ultimately, Google came out of all of these incidents just fine. It paid some money here and there, and sat in a few courtrooms, but nothing really happened to the company’s bottom line. People continued using Google’s services.

Other companies have done it too

Remember Cambridge Analytica?

Five months ago in March, a 28-year-old named Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on his employer, the data-analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, at which he served as a director of research.

It was later revealed that Cambridge Analytica had collected the data of over 87 million Facebook users in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election in favour of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

One month later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was summoned in front of Congress to answer questions related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal over a two-day span.

Many users felt like their trust was violated. A hashtag movement called “#DeleteFacebook” was born.

And yet, nothing has really changed at Facebook since that scandal, which similarly involved the improper collection of user data, and the violation of users’ trust.

Facebook seems to be doing just fine. During its Q2 earnings report in late July, Facebook reported over $US13 billion in revenue – a 42% jump year-over-year – and an 11% increase in both daily and monthly active users.

In short, Facebook is not going anywhere. And neither is Google.

Too big – and too good – to fail

Just like Facebook has no equal among the hundreds of other social networks out there, the same goes for Google and competing search engines.

According to StatCounter, Google has a whopping 90% share of the global search engine market.

The next biggest search engine in the world is Microsoft’s Bing, which has a paltry 3% market share.

In other words, a cataclysmic event would have to occur for people to switch search engines. Or, another search engine would have to come along and completely unseat Google.

But that’s probably not going to happen.

GoogleUladzik Kryhin/Shutterstock

For almost 20 years now, Google dominated the search engine game. Its other services have become similarly prevalent: Gmail, and Google Docs, have all become integral parts of people’s personal and work lives. Of course, there are similar mail and productivity services out there, but using Google is far more convenient, since most people use more than one Google product, and having all of your applications talk to each other and share information is mighty convenient.

This isn’t meant to cry foul: Google is one of the top software makers in the world, but it has earned that status by constantly improving and iterating on its products, and even itself, over the past two decades. But one does wonder what event, if any, could possibly make people quit a service as big and convenient and powerful as Google once and for all.

The fact is: That probably won’t happen. People likely won’t quit Google’s services, unless there’s some major degradation of quality. But Google, as a leader in Silicon Valley, should strive to do better for its customers. Intentional or not, misleading customers about location data is a bad thing. Google failed its customers: It let users think they had more control when they did, and they only corrected their language about location data after a third-party investigation. But there was no public acknowledgement of an error, and no mea culpa.

Google owes its users a true apology. Quietly updating an online help page isn’t good enough.

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