Google users searched embarrassing terms less in wake of privacy change, study finds

14 March 2017. By Mike Swift.

In the month in 2012 after Google broadened its sharing of personal data across its services, there was a measurable drop in the share of searches using sensitive or embarrassing terms such as "acne," "depression," "porn," and "white power," a new study shows.

But the effect dissipated fully within two months, according to a forthcoming study by a George Mason University law professor and former US Federal Trade Commission official. The effect led researcher James C. Cooper to conclude that regulators should treat such privacy changes like a basic price increase, not requiring regulatory intervention so long as companies clearly communicate the change to consumers.

"There's really no consumer harm to vindicate," Cooper said Tuesday in an interview with MLex about his study, which was not funded by the search giant. "Google was transparent [about the privacy change]. Some people left, and then everything went back to normal one month later. To me, it suggests that the FTC was right to let that one go."

By tracking the relative volume of 20 "sensitive" search terms — with keywords that also included "AIDS," "KKK," "coming out," "strip club" and "herpes" — against frequently used nonsensitive terms such as "weather," "maps" and "e-Bay" that Cooper used as a control, Google's own publicly available data showed a drop of 5 to 7 percent in sensitive searches in March 2012, right after the company implemented the privacy changes.

There was a smaller, and statistically insignificant, decline in sensitive searches in April. But by May 2012, the effect was gone.

"The results are consistent with some consumers, at the margin, withholding sensitive searches from Google for fear of unwanted observation," Cooper said in a draft of the forthcoming paper. It could be that some consumers left Google for Microsoft's Bing, Yahoo or another search engine. Or they could have stopped searching on Google using those terms, he said Tuesday.

For plaintiff lawyers and regulators such as the FTC, a threshold problem in protecting privacy is how to quantify the harm to consumers when some of that privacy is taken away, particularly by free online services that make money by targeting digital ads.

Previous studies have tried to measure the value of privacy by looking at how much money consumers would hypothetically be willing to pay to avoid sharing personal information with an online service. Cooper's study is different because it measures real-world behavior by consumers in the wake of a well-publicized change in privacy practices.

When Google announced it would change its privacy practices in early 2012 so that personal information collected by its search engine would be shared across all other Google properties, such as Google Maps, Gmail, and YouTube, there was widespread criticism and extensive news coverage.

The change spurred privacy advocates to demand that the FTC investigate, it upset European regulators, and it drew the ire of more than 30 state attorneys general. In the US, the FTC has never brought an enforcement action against Google over the change.

Google's privacy change also sparked a string of lawsuits that were consolidated in a federal court in San Jose, California. A federal magistrate judge dismissed the case in 2015, saying the plaintiffs had failed to allege they had suffered an injury because of Google's change.

Last year, there was a similar outcry over Facebook's plan to commingle personal data collected by its WhatsApp communications platform with its social network, with US privacy advocates asking the FTC to investigate, and protests in Europe causing Facebook to suspend implementation of the change.

And in December, Consumer Watchdog and other consumer protection groups asked the FTC to investigate another Google privacy change. The company stopped separating data from "tracking cookies" from data in its user accounts, allowing the online advertising giant to "track users across the overwhelming majority of websites in use in the world today," the complaint said.

Cooper spent eight years at the FTC, much of it in the FTC Office of Policy and Planning during the administration of President George W. Bush, including time as a deputy to current acting FTC Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.

At George Mason, Cooper is director of the Program on Economics & Privacy at the law school's Law and Economics Center, which has received financial support from Google and other Internet companies. However, Cooper said his is a peer-reviewed, academic study that had no financial support or policy input from Google.

As part of the study, Cooper studied the difference in Google search traffic across all 50 states, expecting to see a bigger impact on searches in states such as California, which has the largest number of state privacy laws among the 50 states and where a right to privacy is in the state constitution.

No matter how the numbers are analyzed, "you don't really see a difference in privacy-sensitive states," Cooper told MLex. "It was surprising; I thought you would see a different reaction in different states."

The decrease in sensitive searches may have gone away after two months because consumer worries about privacy were eclipsed by their perceptions of improvements in Google's search quality, Cooper said. Or, as with studies showing similar impacts on company stock prices after a shock of bad news that dissipates over time, it could be that consumers simply lost focus on the issue and stopped worrying when they saw no obvious impact on their privacy.

Cooper said one conclusion could be that consumers are relatively comfortable with data protection practices of companies such as Google — or that they are just more comfortable with Google's faceless algorithm holding sensitive information about them instead of friends and family.

"Put another way, although Google's algorithm may know more about us, our friends, spouses, parents, co-workers, and neighbors don't," Cooper concluded in his study. "Perhaps this is the privacy that consumers care most about."