TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Google and Privacy

Google and Privacy

Lisa Minter (
Wed, 25 May 2005 19:22:03 -0500

Biting the Hand That Feeds IT

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: The above sentence _could_ apply to me,
since monthly Google advertising payments are a principal source of
my very limited income these days, but oh well ... PAT]

The Register 'Internet and Law' Digital Rights/Digital Wrongs
Original URL:

Google values its own privacy. How does it value yours?

By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco (andrew.orlowski at

Analysis: It's absurd to suggest that Google doesn't appreciate the
value of privacy. When it comes to its own privacy, the company takes
it very seriously indeed.

Let's recap some of the ways. Sometimes Google is so obsessively
private that it gets into trouble when it shouldn't. The company's
finances are formally a black hole, although great hopes rest on the
imminent IPO reviving the tech sector. The company also sets new
standards of secrecy when it comes to publishing research. Google is a
paradise for researchers in every way but one. Staff are allowed
twenty per cent of their time for "self-directed research" - which
gives them plenty of hours in the week to make ships in bottles, if
they so wish. It's one of the least product-orientated policies in
Silicon Valley, and explains why Google continues to recruit top grade
talent from its Valley neighbors. But there's one catch: Google
doesn't publish any of its research, giving it the reputation of a
lousy corporate citizen. Instead Google publishes lists of PhDs, but
this isn't the same thing. So Google's R&D department is a black hole,

It does however allow staff to publish the daily Googleplex menu
( On this day last year you could
have chosen between Joaquin's Potato Salad -- steamed fingerling
potatoes, with red onion, English peas, basil, parsley and a lemon
aioli -- and Portabella Mushroom Pizza -- Roasted portabella mushrooms
topped with a roasted tomato sauce, kalamata olives, pepperonchinis
and parmesan. All quite delicious, but it's hard to see how it
advances the field of computer science. Because nothing gets
published, peer review works only if the peers are other Google
employees: a disturbing trend which could lead to a company

In one example well known to Register readers, Google refused to
publish a formal inclusion policy for its News site. Google News is
the fifth largest web destination in the world, and can be considered
as one of the largest disseminators of News on the planet. Although it
privately informs news outlets why they have been rejected, it won't
publish a policy. As a consequence, when Google began to include
corporate and lobby group press releases on the site, it led to some
agonizing contortions.

Take this remarkable statement:

( by Google News creator
Krishna Bharat and see if you can work out whether or not Google includes
press releases as news (emphasis added):-

"Press releases we don't consider to be a news source, that's for
sure. I don't want to go and police all the news out there. I've seen
lots of articles where the press release appears verbatim. Do we wait
for that to show up hours late, or do we allow people to use it and
act on it -- especially when it's a business item?

"There are no press releases on the browsable pages or news pages. We
have a higher editorial responsibility on those because we're telling
you where you should look. On the news pages, we do not intend to use
press releases. Making a press release available as part of the search
results gives the full facts that were available to the reporter when
they wrote it."

Confused? Let's translate:

"Google News doesn't consider press releases to be news. We don't want
to be selective. But we are selective, and we consider press releases
to be news, especially when it represents a commercial interest. In
any case, we have news pages where we don't want to use press
releases. Except there we do, because it's good for you."

Perhaps confusion was the intention. We only quote this at length here
because that exchange six months ago was echoed with the confused
reaction to the privacy outcry last week.

How to boil a frog:

'I keep asking for a product called Serendipity,' said Eric Schmidt
recently. USA Today reported that "this product would have access to
everything ever written or recorded, know everything the user ever
worked on and saved to his or her personal hard drive, and know a
whole lot about the user's tastes, friends and predilections."

Google is already close to this goal, and if it isn't Google itself
that attempts to introduce such a product, we can be sure that someone
else will think it's a good idea.

Privacy is a lot more subtle than it's often portrayed. But it comes
down to trust, and an organization is as good as it is trustworthy.
The events of the past week are alarming not so much for Gmail itself,
but Google's reaction to the controversy. And that tells us a lot.
Google sees privacy asymmetrically: privacy is good for Google, but it
can't understand why anyone else would be concerned. Schmidt's
Serendipity, along with Larry Page's recent boob about wishing to have
a Google brain implant, show that Google's technical ambitions far
outpace its sense of social responsibility.

The flippant April 1 Gmail press release was ill-advised, and signaled
that the company didn't expect any controversy. In waded Larry Page
who refused to rule out cross-linking personal searches and email, in
reports published on April 2:

"Larry Page wouldn't say whether Google planned to link Gmail users to
their Web search queries. 'It might be really useful for us to know
that information" to make search results better, he said. 'I'd hate to
rule anything like that out,'" reported the Los Angeles Times.

Four days later, with Larry wisely hidden out of harm's way under the
stairs, Google VP of Engineering Wayne Rosing faced the fire. "Rosing
said there will be an information firewall separating Google's search
engine from Gmail," AP reported on April 6. "'We don't use the data
collected on one service, ' he said, 'to enhance another,'". Two days
later in the New York Times Rosing was less emphatic: "We have no
immediate plans to do so in the future," he said.

So Google had four statements on whether or not it cross-linked search
queries and email in a week. Unlike the News controversy, this time
people noticed. On April 8 the company also clarified its data
retention policy in its privacy statement, making clear that mail may
be retained on backups, removing the implication that you couldn't
remove your mail files from a closed account even if you wanted to.

Much of the controversy was therefore avoidable. As a measure of how
much damage the episode has done to Google, the final firebreak has
been reached in defense of the email service. This is the classic
libertarian argument that shoppers need not use it if they so wish, or
as we call it here, "The Shrug". But this fatalistic line of argument
vacates any moral responsibility, throwing it instead onto the
"market", which can be relied on to deliver the best of all possible
worlds, as we all know. A more honest answer would be simply to
profess not to care about privacy.

The erosion of privacy and the intrusion of commercial spam in our
lives is subtle. Like boiling a frog alive, we rarely notice how much
we've lost until its too late. Unless we draw a line now, reminding
companies like Google - which exhibit a kind of corporate Asperger's
Syndrome when it comes to privacy - of exactly what we value, then in
ten years time it will be too late.

"It's ironic," writes one reader, "for a company that says Do No Evil
-- they don't know the definition." After Gmail, what price

Copyright 2005, the

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