Google's privacy policy and the importance of language in our digital lives

The New York Times yesterday published a piece that looks at the way Google’s privacy policy has changed since the nineties.

It’s well worth a read, as it allows you to trace the way the internet has changed over two decades - as the NYT puts it, it really is a “secret history of the internet.”

There are many issues thrown up by the piece, but one thing that struck me in particular is the way in which language is so fundamental to the way digital experiences actually happen to us.

On the one hand this is obvious - when we’re talking about privacy, there’s a necessary legal component that requires documentation. But to go even beyond that, the way in which concepts and relationships are framed by policies - by language - plays an integral part in how we understand them.

It’s no surprise that Google should be well aware of this. With a product manager for its privacy policy (which sounds weird when but after a moment’s reflection makes perfect sense), it’s obvious that Google are approaching these documents as more than just a boring necessity, and instead something that can help shape the way a user interacts with the company.

The importance of style

There’s more in the NYT article than I really want to summarize, but one small thing that I found interesting and haven’t yet been able to process is the fact that the privacy policy introduced in 2012 is actually much shorter than the one from the year previous.

You’d assume that with Google’s business model becoming more complex and sophisticated, the privacy policy would have to grow.

But, in actual fact, instead of leaving an inevitable trail of legalese in its wake, as Google’s operation advances, it sharpens up its language in favour of something more concise - maybe even more stylish.

There’s clearly a legal angle to this - the less you say the better, perhaps. But the level of control on display here says a lot about the way digital platforms and organizations depend upon harnessing language to their advantage to ensure they always remain in charge and in control of the relationships we have with them.