Soon, Google will present you with a clear choice to disable smart features, like Google assistant reminders to pay your bills and predictive text in Gmail. Whether you like the Gmail mindreader function that autofills “all the best” and “reaching out,” or have long dreaded the arrival of the machine staring back from the void,: it’s your world, Google’s just living in it. According to Google.
We’ve always been able to disable these functions if we bothered hunting through account settings. But “in the coming weeks” Google will show a new blanket setting to “turn off smart features” which will disable features like Smart Compose, Smart Reply, in apps like Gmail; the second half of the same prompt will disable whether additional Google products—like Maps or Assistant, for example—are allowed to be personalized based on data from Gmail, Meet, and Chat.
Google writes in its blog post about the new-ish settings that humans are not looking at your emails to enable smart features, and Google ads are “not based on your personal data in Gmail,” something CEO Sundar Pichai has likewise said time and again. Google claims to have stopped that practice in 2017, although the following year the Wall Street Journal reported that third-party app developers had freely perused inboxes with little oversight. (When asked whether this is still a problem, the spokesperson pointed us to Google’s 2018 effort to tighten security.)
A Google spokesperson emphasized that the company only uses email contents for security purposes like filtering spam and phishing attempts.
These personalization changes aren’t so much about tightening security as they are another informed consent defense which Google can use to repel the current regulatory siege being waged against it by lawmakers. It has expanded incognito mode for maps and auto-deleting data in location history or web and app activity and on YouTube (though after a period of a few months).
Inquiries in the U.S. and EU have found that Google’s privacy settings have historically presented the appearance of privacy, rather than privacy itself. After a 2018 AP article exposed the extent of Google’s location data harvesting, an investigation found that turning location off in Android was no guarantee that Google wouldn’t collect location data (though Google has denied this.) Plaintiffs in a $5 billion class-action lawsuit filed this summer alleged that “incognito mode” in Chrome didn’t prevent Google from capturing and sharing their browsing history. And last year, French regulators fined Google nearly $57 million for violating the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by allegedly burying privacy controls beneath five or six layers of settings. (When asked, the spokesperson said Google has no additional comment on these cases.)
So this is nice, and also Google’s announcement reads as a letter to regulators. “This new setting is designed to reduce the work of understanding and managing [a choice over how data is processed], in view of what we’ve learned from user experience research and regulators’ emphasis on comprehensible, actionable user choices over data.”