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Google's new magic number for storing personal data: 18 months

After years of adding more tools and settings, Google's changing its default settings for how long it stores user data.

Google security logo

Eighteen months is Google's magic new number.

Image: Google / Protocol

After years of answering users' privacy worries mostly with more options and buttons most people will never find, Google made a big change to how it works by default.

Eighteen months is Google's magic new number: From now on, when someone sets up a Google account, by default their data will be set to autodelete after 18 months. The same goes for Google's Location History feature, which tracks users even when they're not using Google products. Google's not changing the policy for existing users, saying it doesn't want to change users' settings without their knowledge, but it does plan to remind them about their options. Anyone looking for a more stringent plan can set things to autodelete after three months instead.

Why those numbers? Google says that the three-month timeline is about recency: It's enough time to get context and have some relevant information about what you've been up to recently. The 18-month option is about seasonality, so people can find information about their taxes, get recommendations based on last year's TV shows, and the like. Both are designed to keep Google feeling personal and current, the company said, whereas a weeklong time frame might make that impossible.

Not all Google products get the same treatment, of course. YouTube data will now live for 36 months by default, since Google figures recommendation quality is particularly important there. Users can choose to delete after three or 18 months if they want. And there's no such setting for Gmail, Drive or Google Photos, which are explicitly designed to store things for a long time.

Google's also trying to make it easier for people to access their settings, like turning "Google Privacy Checkup" into a search term that takes you straight to that page in your account. It's making it easier to switch into Incognito Mode, too — though some users have found Incognito Mode to not be very incognito.

Sundar Pichai said in a blog post that Google continues to "challenge ourselves to do more with less," and Google executives talked a lot about the company's use of differential privacy to work with personalized data without identifying users. The company also proudly announced it's using differential privacy and federated learning to train the Gboard keyboard with more secure, less personal data.

But it's the defaults that really matter. Google said that 200 million people visit its account page every year, but even that is a small fraction of those with a Google account. Far fewer likely find the Data & Personalization tab, or know what to do with the checkboxes and checkups they find there. Google has collected many years of remarkably specific data on its billions of users, and has framed data collection as something like a necessary trade-off. "Data helps make search work better for you, and with autodelete, you can choose how long you want it to be saved," Pichai said at Google I/O in 2019. There was always a sliding scale between better products and better privacy. Now Google's indicating it's willing to work with much less, with no sacrifices.

The announcement was partly a sort of victory lap for Google, which has been touting its ability to store lots of data without compromising user privacy. It's also a clear signal to regulators, employees and others worried about Google's privacy. Pichai's blog post, which also talked about Google's policies with facial recognition, AI and video chat security, was the closest thing to a "don't be evil" manifesto the company has published in some time.

It's not likely to convince the employees petitioning Google to stop selling to police, or those worried about the company's power in the ad market or the role YouTube recommendations play in the spread of disinformation. But better defaults go a long way to helping users feel comfortable with the idea of Google products, especially as those users get more sophisticated about how their data is collected and used. And not for nothing, "we don't keep your data!" is a pretty good line for Pichai to use in the coming antitrust hearings.

Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Fintech

Beyond Robinhood: Stock exchange rebates are under scrutiny too

Some critics have compared the way exchanges attract orders from customers to the payment for order flow system that has enriched retail brokers.

The New York Stock Exchange is now owned by the Intercontinental Exchange.

Photo: Aditya Vyas/Unsplash

As questions pile up about how powerful and little-known Wall Street entities rake in profits from stock trading, the exchanges that handle vast portions of everyday trading are being scrutinized for how they make money, too.

One mechanism in particular — exchange rebates, or payments from the exchanges for getting certain trades routed to them — has raised concerns with regulators and members of Congress.

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
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