On Tuesday, Google published a blog post to announce it was “giving everyone, everywhere an address.” That sounds very generous of the company, though it’s worth considering what that really means. Obviously Google runs the largest map service on earth, and it isn’t even close. Clearly it has a motivation to bring a standardized way of locating places since Google Maps is the default way many people get directions every day.
In that sense, Plus Codes, which is what Google is calling this new feature, is a good thing. According to Google:
Plus Codes use latitude and longitude to produce a short, easy-to-share digital address that can represent any location on the planet… A Plus Code can easily be used where no addresses, street names or even streets exist today. Someone in an area without addresses no longer needs to give out complicated instructions to find a home or workplace–like “drive to the community center, turn left and look for the blue house with the red roof.” Now, they can simply share a short Plus Code and it immediately works.
I think it’s fair to argue that Google is providing a very valuable service. In developing nations, especially, there are people and businesses that live in areas that lack basic infrastructure. In that case, having an address can be the difference between being found by customers–not to mention emergency services–or being invisible.
It’s hard to argue against that benefit until you remember that with every service provided by Google, there’s a cost. It doesn’t always seem like it because, on the surface, at least, the service appears to be free. And by free, I mean you don’t have to put in a credit card number and make a payment in order to have Google create a Plus Code for you. Instead, you just hand over a little of your personal data–which, I promise you, is more valuable than anything you charge on your Visa.
That’s because anytime a digital service is free, the cost is probably much higher than you’d otherwise be willing to pay, and that should concern you very much.
Google is promoting Plus Codes as a service to underdeveloped areas where people don’t always have streets, let alone street addresses. Again, I don’t argue that it won’t be very useful to anyone in that situation. Making yourself findable is a very valuable thing, both for individuals and businesses.
Except, I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable with anyone having to be that dependent on tech giants with a questionable history of treating our personal information as a commodity to be monetized. There are certainly areas of the world where the government fails to provide the most basic infrastructure, like roads. However, how much better is it to depend instead on Google for those basic needs, and at what cost?
I don’t mean that Google is uniquely bad, but it’s worth remembering that Google’s own interests are often in direct conflict with the privacy concerns of those users. That’s because Google Maps is an enormous advertising opportunity. Morgan Stanley estimates that Google Maps could represent more than $11 billion in revenue for the company by 2023.
That revenue comes from small businesses advertising their location when a user searches for nearby restaurants or auto-parts store, for example. Making sure every one of those businesses has an easily identifiable address is a pretty important step to offering those businesses advertising products on Google’s platforms.
But what if you don’t want to be found? I reached out to Google, and a spokesperson told me that “A Plus Code is converted from a latitude and longitude and the conversion process doesn’t add identifying information…When used in different contexts, other information can be associated with a Plus Code, just as additional information can be associated with a latitude and longitude coordinate or a traditional address.”
Basically a Plus Code is like a short link for a specific location, which exists whether you know what it is or not. That’s fine, but I still think it’s worth remembering that Google isn’t just doing this out of the goodness of its heart. It’s a business, and it clearly believes that Plus Codes are worth the investment. I’m just suggesting you ask yourself why.