Google and the UK Citizens Advice Bureau – an uncomfortable alliance

I picked up a Guardian newspaper today and could not miss the full-page Google+ advertisement. Or was it? The advertisement stated that it was from the Citizens Advice Bureau in partnership with Google. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) is a well-respected (and genuinely useful) service which runs a network of offices in the UK where you can go for free advice for things like legal or financial problems. It is a charity funded partly by government grants.

What is it doing partnering with Google? Well, I presume it is because the theme is “how to be safer on the Internet” which is something that I am sure the CAB cares about. However looking at the advertisement it would be easy to conclude that the CAB is somehow promoting Google+, the social networking site that Google hopes will rival Facebook. Intriguing.

The advertisement says:

To find out more about how to manage your information online, pick up a booklet from your local Citizens Advice Bureau or go to google.co.uk/goodtoknow

I wanted to see this booklet, so I looked into the Holborn CAB in London.

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I have to say that the aforementioned booklet was not exactly strewn about. In fact, the woman on the desk wasn’t sure if they had any. She went and looked though, and came back with the web address. Perhaps I could go there? I said I was keen to see the booklet the CAB was handing out – did it exist? Eventually I was told that they did not have any, but that the head office in Pentonville Road might. So I went there.

The man at the desk was not sure, but went away for a moment, and came back with one in his hands.

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Page one says this:

We have partnered with Citizens Advice to provide tips and advice. You can get free, confidential and impartial help about everything from finances to staying safe online from your local bureau in person, on the phone or online. For in depth information on all of the topics in this booklet and more, visit the Good to Know website.

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I think this is a PR triumph for Google, but I reckon the CAB has been sold a pup. It is not that I have anything against Google; but I would go to Google for impartial advice about staying safe online in the same way that I would go to a ferry company for impartial advice on cheap flights.

There is little sign of impartiality in the booklet. Personally I would say that a booklet on “how to manage the information you share online” that does not mention Facebook is in chocolate teapot territory. This booklet achieves this though; in fact the only web site mentioned is … Google.

“Keep your Google Account extra safe,” it says. But how about not having a Google account? No account, no personal details to lose.

This is stealth advertising – except that I am not sure about the stealth.

A substantial portion of the booklet is devoted to explaining why Google having my data is really good for me. “How knowing you better makes your internet better,” it says.

There is no mention of the benefits of using an ad-blocker to avoid sending data to advertisers. Nor does it include advice on simply not putting data online at all, if it might embarrass you or compromise your safety.

The reason is that Google cannot possibly be impartial about managing online information. Google wants your data, as much of it as possible, in order to target advertising. It is as simple as that.

Which is why Google is an uncomfortable partner for the CAB. I think the CAB could do with some impartial advice.

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6 comments to Google and the UK Citizens Advice Bureau – an uncomfortable alliance

  • I +1-ed this, enjoying the irony.

  • have you seen the equally disingenuous tube adverts? if this is part of the privacy settlement, Google must be laughing all the way to the bank

  • James

    Hey Tim,

    Why don’t you get together with The Register and offer to send out a TheRegister sponsored CAB guide yourself? :)

  • Roddy

    Individual (independent) Citizens Advice Bureaux (CAB) had no say in this Google tie up. Many are horrified.This is a Citizens Advice initiative. This is the membership organisation set up by CABx many years ago.
    We now have a case of tail wagging the dog; CABx could manage without Citizens Advice but not vice versa. As Citizens Advice do not actually give advice they do not have to be impartial! (Nor do they fund CABx)
    If the Law Society did a similar thing solicitors would be up in arms.

  • Jane

    Totally agree with you, and Roddy. Citizens Advice central office have little to do with what actually goes on in an advice centre, and this is another example of how this situation can lead to local services being tarred with the brush of lack of independence etc. There’s a reason that many local bureaux don’t stock the leaflet, by the way, it’s because they won’t have anything to do with it. Until they make it a ‘membership requirement’ to do so, then it’s a totally different ball game. Nice one.

  • Very uncomfortable indeed – and it’s all over the London tube, too. Another example of what David Cameron really means by ‘The Big Society’: giving big business access to voluntary sector outlets for marketing purposes. I’d love to know what money changed hands to ‘facilitate’ this.