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The Privacy Paradox: Google’s Latest Policy Shift and Its Ramifications on AI Development

How the Web Became an AI Playground and its Impact on Social Media Giants

The digital realm reverberated with surprise and uncertainty as Google updated its privacy policy over the weekend. The tech giant has explicitly stated that it reserves the right to scrape virtually anything you post online to enhance its AI tools. If Google can read your words, it seems they now belong to the company, likely residing somewhere deep within a chatbot.

The new Google policy states, “Google uses information to improve our services and to develop new products, features, and technologies that benefit our users and the public. For example, we use publicly available information to help train Google’s AI models and build products and features like Google Translate, Bard, and Cloud AI capabilities.” It essentially extends an existing policy, detailing additional ways your online posts could be utilized to improve Google's AI tools.

In the past, Google mentioned using the data for ‘language models,' but the new policy refers to ‘AI models.' Additionally, it broadens its application area by incorporating Google Translate, Bard, and Cloud AI. This development adds an unusual twist to a typical privacy policy. Usually, these policies outline how a business uses information posted on its own services. Here, it appears that Google is treating the entire public web as its own AI playground, using data posted anywhere on it. Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this matter.

A new set of privacy questions emerges from this practice. The general understanding is that public posts are public. But now, writing something online requires a new mental model. It is no longer merely a question of visibility, but also about potential use. There's a real possibility that AI programs like Bard and ChatGPT may be using your long-forgotten blog posts or decade-old restaurant reviews. These chatbots could be replicating a version of your words in unpredictable and often incomprehensible ways.

The emergence of data-intensive chatbots like ChatGPT has led to questions about their data sourcing. Companies like Google and OpenAI have reportedly scraped extensive sections of the internet to feed their AI programs. The legality of this is not entirely clear and might soon have courts dealing with copyright issues that seemed like sci-fi not too long ago. Meanwhile, this phenomenon already has an impact on consumers in unexpected ways.

The development has not gone down well with social media bigwigs like Twitter and Reddit, who have made contentious changes to secure their platforms. Both have restricted free access to their APIs, which used to allow anyone to download large quantities of posts. While intended to protect these sites from other companies exploiting their intellectual property, these changes have had far-reaching effects.

Changes to Twitter and Reddit's APIs have broken third-party tools that many used to access these sites. It even briefly seemed that Twitter would charge public entities like weather, transit, and emergency services for tweeting, but this was rescinded after widespread criticism. Meanwhile, Reddit has seen extensive noise due to these changes. Unpaid moderators, who essentially run Reddit, often depend on third-party tools built on the now inaccessible APIs. This led to a widespread protest and a virtual shutdown of Reddit. The long-term consequences are still unfolding as disillusioned moderators step down.

Recently, Elon Musk pointed at web scraping as a major problem. Following a series of Twitter mishaps, Musk blamed the company's defensive action against data scraping for the issues, even when they seemed unrelated. Over the weekend, Twitter limited the number of tweets users could view per day, rendering the service almost unusable. Musk attributed this to combating “data scraping” and “system manipulation.” However, most IT experts believed the rate limiting was a response to technical issues resulting from mismanagement or incompetence. Twitter did not respond to Gizmodo’s inquiries on the matter.

Interestingly, the direct impact of this phenomenon is not just limited to the tech industry or consumers. It has triggered a ripple effect on social media platforms, sparking considerable outrage and operational disruptions. Twitter and Reddit, feeling particularly aggrieved by these AI implications, have made notable alterations to their platform access. Both giants decided to turn off free access to their APIs, which previously allowed large-scale data downloading. On the surface, this seems like a protective measure to prevent their intellectual property from being harvested by other companies. However, this protective bubble had unintended consequences.

The changes introduced by Twitter and Reddit to their APIs have effectively disrupted third-party tools that many individuals used for accessing these platforms. This move by Twitter even stirred a momentary fear that public entities, including weather, transit, and emergency services, would have to pay for tweeting. Twitter, however, quickly backpedaled on this move following a wave of criticism.

In another twist of events, Reddit's API changes proved to be particularly disruptive. Reddit, largely managed by unpaid moderators, relies heavily on third-party tools for efficient moderation. These tools, unfortunately, were rendered ineffective due to the API restrictions, leading to a wave of protest that essentially brought Reddit to a standstill. The fallout from this controversy is still evolving, and it's likely to have lasting consequences as disgruntled moderators decide to step down.

As this ongoing discourse unfolds, Elon Musk has entered the fray with his thoughts on the matter. He has repeatedly pointed out web scraping as a prominent concern in recent times. In a series of Twitter events that unfolded over the weekend, Musk attributed the platform's decision to limit the number of tweets users can view daily to their efforts to combat “data scraping” and “system manipulation”. Although Twitter rendered the service almost unusable with these new constraints, Musk defended it as a necessary response. Nonetheless, IT experts largely agreed that this severe rate-limiting was more likely a crisis response to underlying technical problems, either resulting from mismanagement, incompetence, or both. Despite the clamor for answers, Twitter has remained silent on Gizmodo's queries on the subject.

This saga around data privacy, AI developments, and the consequent changes in the social media landscape encapsulates the complicated relationship between technology and policy. As we move forward in the digital age, these kinds of issues will continue to surface and challenge our understanding of privacy, copyright, and the extent to which AI can make use of publicly available data. Only time will tell how we navigate these tricky waters, balancing the rapid advancements in technology with ethical, legal, and societal considerations.

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