Google wants your photos – and your money

Google wants your photos – and your money

On November 11th, Google announced a significant change to the pricing of its Google Photos storage system. Effective June 1, 2021, every photo you upload will count towards your 15GB “free” storage on Google’s services. This 15GB limit also includes your Gmail messages and files you’ve uploaded to Drive. Also beginning June 1, your Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and other content you create will also count towards that 15GB storage.

Previously, only photos uploaded in “High Quality” counted towards the limit. With the change, all photos will.

On Android phones – the majority of phones used in the US and around the world – Google Photos automatically backs up your pics and videos to their servers. This is helpful if you ever lose your phone — assuming you’re OK with Google having copies of your media to begin with.

Our data is Google’s raw material

We give Google a lot, without paying. Google is a for-profit company, and doesn’t give everyone 15GB of storage out of the goodness of their hearts: It’s a hook to get us using Gmail and Drive and search so that data can be mined and they can show us ads. Above all else, Google is not a search or mail company – they are an advertising company that uses the enormous amounts of data they collect to target us. That targeting creates a feedback loop: If you search for vacuum cleaners, you’ll probably see an ad for vacuum cleaners soon. If you click on that ad, you’re signaling interest in the product and the category, triggering more ads for vacuum cleaners and then – because you’ve probably purchased one at some point – other household utility items.

Some call this free labor for Google, but it’s more complicated. I agree with Nick Srnicek’s description of data as raw material as he outlines in his book Platform Capitalism:

Rather than exploiting free labor, the position taken here is that advertising platforms appropriate data as a raw material. The activities of users and institutions, if they are recorded and transformed into data, become a raw material that can be refined and used in a variety of ways by platforms. With advertising platforms in particular, revenue is generated through the extraction of data from users’ activities online, from the analysis of those data, and from the auctioning of ad space to advertisers.

Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism

Google uses photos to improve their services

Do a search in Google Maps for a local landmark. In this example, I’m using the New Haven Green (Google link). Scroll down in the sidebar until you see the photos of the location.

Screenshot of a Google Maps search result for the New Haven Green, showing photos taken by Google users.

Note that the photos come from a variety of Google users. In the screenshot above, Juan Carlos Salguero (top left of the photograph) posted the photo to Google’s Picasa service (bottom center of the photograph).

The same images come up if you simply search for “New Haven Green” on Google:

A screenshot of Google search infobox for the New Haven Green, including the same photo of a church in the earlier screenshot.

The photos exist to make the search more engaging, keeping you on Google properties for longer.

To be able to see photos of a landmark is pretty useful. In 2016, Google told Wired they already had a collection of “255,000 landmarks that we automatically recognize.” The product manager went on to say “Even without the geotags, we’d be able to recognize a landmark.” Geotags are location data that your phone saves along with a picture.

Google’s machines are learning from us, and Google profits

How would Google be able to recognize landmarks? They use machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence. By analyzing the content of photos and comparing them with sets of pictures that Google has labeled with the correct information, they can automatically identify what’s in a photograph.

If you take a photo on the New Haven Green and upload it to Google Photos, then Google knows you’re in New Haven and could use that as a signal to show you ads local for New Haven. The same algorithms learn from your photo and help apply it to the next person in the same situation.

Google makes the vast majority of its money from advertising. Starting June 1 they’ll also try to make more money by charging you to store the photos it mines as raw material.

Note: The author already pays Google for extra storage space and is still not happy about this situation.