Google is building private search in the wake of the tech scandal

Google is building private search in the wake of the tech scandal

Alphabet Inc’s Google has considered creating a more private way to search the Internet that doesn’t track which sites users visit, according to testimony from a senior vice president in the government’s landmark antitrust case against the company.

It was 2019 and Google was on the defensive as tech companies dealt with the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users was secretly mined and mined for voter insights.

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Google ultimately rejected the idea, according to testimony from Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at the company. This is partly because of how Google’s so-called Incognito could hurt the company’s ad revenue.

“One of the concerns was that if Google adopted this proposal, users would choose it and Google would lose billions of dollars in revenue, right?” Justice Department lawyer Joshua Havenbrack asked Raghavan in federal court in Washington.

“That was just one of the concerns,” Raghavan said. He said the company also thought about the difficulty of trying to explain to users the difference between incognito search and incognito mode in Chrome, which doesn’t track website visit history.

The tale represents a rare perspective on how one of the world’s most powerful technology companies navigates the fundamental tension between user privacy and its commercial interests. In the largest technology monopoly prosecution of the past two decades, Justice Department lawyers argued that the volume of search query data people generate for Google is the lifeblood of the company’s success. The data serves as “oxygen for the search engine,” Kenneth Dentzer, the Justice Department’s lead lawyer, said in an opening statement for the trial.

The government’s case centers on the idea that Google illegally maintains an online search monopoly by effectively preventing competitors from competing. Google says businesses and users choose its service as their default search engine because it’s the best.

But under questioning by Havenbrack, Raghavan testified that Google’s decision to thwart an independent incognito search engine was partly due to the fact that it would lose advertising revenue if there was less user data feeding its system.

Consumer privacy on the Internet was of increasing interest at the time due to Cambridge Analytica. The consulting firm was hired by former President Donald Trump’s campaign and obtained Facebook user data to target ads. In July 2019, Facebook — which has since been renamed Meta Platforms Inc. – A record fine of $5 billion due to this episode. Google CEO Sundar Pichai appeared before Congress in December 2018, pledging that the company would “do better” to help users understand their online privacy choices.

Pichai later took to the pages of The New York Times in a May 2019 op-ed to pledge that privacy is “not a luxury good” and highlight a recent feature that made it easier for users to automatically delete their information from Google.

In his testimony during the trial this week, Raghavan said that before this change, Google kept a user’s search history indefinitely. Today, it only retains information for 18 months.

In June 2019, the Google Search team proposed making a number of changes to the Google Search product in response to DuckDuckGo, including no longer retaining information about users’ location and search history. Benedict Gomes, then head of Google’s search division, had called for changes, but Raghavan – who then headed search advertising – testified that he was not convinced they were necessary.

In an email exchange at the time, Gomez said privacy was a “sensitive research point” and “an important identification point that represents a potential threat.”

In what he agreed was a strongly worded email, Raghavan told Gomez: “I agree that there is something worth exploring in this private research space. But the teams need to do a more thorough job before wasting our valuable time. I want to see evidence that There is a real impact on Google users due to this factor.

Raghavan said he was “seeking more accurate data and analysis.”

Google did not embrace the proposal, though it eventually created a feature that would allow a user to delete the last 15 minutes of search history, Raghavan said.

The Justice Department’s Havenbrack noted that Google surveyed consumers about how long they wanted the tech company to keep data, and the majority said it was one month. Raghavan said he didn’t remember.

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