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Google Privacy Row – Roundup

Monday, 11 June 2007 4:55 pm

Since last night there’s ben a huge row over this report from Privacy International slamming Google over its user privacy policy/practices.

For a taster Mitch Ratcliffe has this to say:

Giving up our privacy for a little Web functionality and storage capacity is like handing over the mining rights to ancestral lands to the first guy who comes along with a better shovel

And he was responding to this :

It’s funny how they know so much about their horrible practices when they even admit Google didn’t respond to their request for information. Certainly that means their practices are the worst on the Internet.

Scoble weighed in by saying:

I was hoping this report was more factual than it looks cause we need to have a real conversation about privacy. If you read the privacy report you should read Danny’s blow-by-blow response to it.

That said, Google’s PR is really stinky. Google isn’t paying attention to what normal people think of it anymore and it’s getting a bad reputation because of that. I heard it slammed over and over again for street-level views on Google Maps and no one from Google responded in most of the mainstream talk shows I heard talking about it. They should have a full-court “feel good” initiative where they have normal everyday citizens come in and meet the engineers, and look at the privacy issues.

Danny Sullivan has a pretty good blow-by-blow account of the report (its a must read):

Overall, looking at just the performance of the best companies PI found shows that Google measures up well — and thus ranking it the worse simply doesn’t seem fair. But the bigger issue is that the report itself doesn’t appear to be as comprehensive or fully researched as it is billed.

Frankly, about the only thing saving Privacy International from many more companies or services being upset over this report is that they singled out Google as the worse. That’s almost guaranteed to make players like Microsoft and Yahoo shut their mouths and point at this silently as vindication they aren’t so bad.

To save itself, I’d like to see Google appoint a privacy czar, someone charged with, as I’ve suggested above, assuming the worst about the company and diligently working to ensure users have as much protection as possible.

All that said, Matt Cutts responds:

Google didn’t leak user queries

In this past year, AOL released millions of raw queries from hundreds of thousands of users. Within days, a journalist had determined the identity of an AOL user from the queries that AOL released. But AOL got a better grade than Google.

Google didn’t give millions of user queries to the Dept. of Justice

In 2005/2006, the Department of Justice sent subpoenas to 34 different companies requesting users’ queries and other data. In fact, the original subpoena requested all queries done by users for two full months. AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo all gave some amount of users’ queries to the Department of Justice. Google fought that subpoena (full disclosure: I filed a declaration in that case). The judge sided with Google; no queries from Google users were given to the DOJ. But Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL got better grades in this report than Google.

Google will anonymize query logs

In March, Google announced that it would begin anonymizing its logs after 18-24 months. Google has continued to communicate on the issue, including a post on the Google blog in May discussing the reasoning behind that decision. In fact, we talk a lot about privacy, from blog posts to Op-Ed pieces in the Financial Times. To the best of my knowledge, no other major search engine has followed suit in a plan to anonymize user logs.

I Don’t think I can really add to all that. Other than the idea that Google is firewalking here. As soon as it makes I really, really clear what its policy is, in detail, and appoints a Privacy Czar, things may well quiet down. Google just has to get used to the idea that this is going to happen more often.

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