Google's breakneck changes stoke privacy fears
By Eric Auchard
Most people missed the announcement about how Google Inc. wants to
burrow inside your brain and capture your most intimate
thoughts. That's because it never happened.
But Google, the world leader in Web search services, is the focus of
mounting paranoia over the scope of its powers as it expands into new
advertising formats from online video to radio and TV, while creating
dozens of new Internet services.
True, the Silicon Valley company has millions of people telling it
daily what's apparently on their minds via simple Web searches,
generating mountains of information about consumer behavior.
The company uses this information to make money by selling
advertisements, but people who are used to browsing anonymously around
stores or channel-hopping on TV find it unnerving to realize that in a
digital world, their every move is recorded.
As people spend more time online and realize just how much information
Google is collecting about their habits and interests, the fear
develops that true or false revelations of the most personal,
embarrassing or even intrusive kind are no more than a Web search
The company mission statement reads: "Organize the world's information
and make it universally accessible and useful" and, famously, "You can
make money without doing evil."
With Google search a fact of life, some suggest our notions of privacy
need to move with the times.
"We are in transition in our idea of privacy and we are still
discovering ways to make sense of the implicit traces people leave
behind," writes David Weinberger in a new book, "Everything is
Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder."
Nicole Wong, the Google attorney who oversees a team of lawyers who
consider privacy and other policy issues that go into the making of
each product, says she isn't surprised people are anxious or concerned
about these innovations.
"The pace of change in technology is so much faster now," Wong said.
"Instead of a generation, or even years, we are seeing breakthrough
technologies emerging in the space of months." Social norms have a
hard time keeping pace.
acquire DoubleClick, which connects buyers and sellers of online
advertising, would double the number of Internet users on which Google
keeps tabs to upward of 1 billion.
For several years now, friends, enemies and first-time daters have had
to face up to the inconvenient truths that turn up with a little Web
snooping -- dubbed Google-stalking.
Just by searching on Google for the names of ex-lovers, schoolmates,
or people they have just met, they can find out more about them than
they bargained for.
Other services which stir concerns Google may know too much about us:
its e-mail service, Gmail, which puts advertisements up alongside
mails people receive based on a scan of their contents; Google
Desktop, which helps users search the local contents of computers; and
Google Earth -- satellite maps which go down to street level. Another
map feature has produced random surveillance-like shots of individuals
going about their days.
Also last month, Google took a big step to unify its different
categories of Internet search -- for images, news, books, Web sites,
local information, video -- in one service.
Unified Search offers no information not already available on Google,
but by putting it all in one place, it is turning up sometimes
disconcerting links between previously unconnected types of data.
And Google is testing various forms of personalized Web search,
including Web History, a feature that allows individual users to look
back at a chronological history of their search activity over several
Users learn what predictable creatures they are -- what good and bad
habits they have -- when their entire Web search record is revealed,
stretching back days, months, even years.
By offering a digital record of users' daily interests, Google is
giving those who choose the service an unprecedented level of insight
into their own thinking.
Computers have begun to play the confessional role once reserved for
the local priest, or psychotherapist.
RULES NEED CHANGING
Modern privacy fears, and legal thinking on the topic, date back to
the invention of aggressive flashbulb photography and the electronic
distribution of tabloid news more than 100 years ago, historians say.
Every major privacy panic since then has occurred against a similar
backdrop of rapid technology change, and the psychological
dislocations that inevitably follow until a new period of social
adaptation and understanding evolves.
"A lot of these things are not about Google in particular but we've
become the focus of that debate and as a leading company that's an
appropriate role for us to play," says Peter Fleischer, Google's
global privacy counsel.
Google has responded by calling for comprehensive legislation to
harmonize laws of various governments, all of which want their say
over the World Wide Web. Self-regulation by the Internet industry has
not worked, the company says.
"Patchwork regulation is confusing for consumers because they don't
know which privacy regulations should apply in different situations,"
Google attorney Wong says of U.S. privacy laws.
New rules are needed to fend off governments which might try to force
companies to divulge customer data, Google argues. It fought off just
such a court request by U.S. authorities last year and argues that for
the limited purposes it keeps customers' data, it is a reliable
"Google is working with companies across an array of industries to get
baseline privacy legislation that would be much closer to the
comprehensive protections in Europe and some other countries," says
Wong, whose title is associate general counsel. She also is working on
laws with Asian countries.
Google has initiated a plan to limit the amount of time the company
stores personal data to no more than two years across its massive
collection of hundreds of thousands of computers.
The proposal spurred debate with privacy regulators in the European
Union. Google last week agreed to scale back its data retention plans
to 18 months.
It argues that everything from spell-checking on its Web search
service to anti-fraud protections to government data retention laws
won't work over any shorter timeframe.
Rivals have not set time limits on storing personal data.
To comment on this story or see more on the theme, go to
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV reporters Matt Cowan in Paris and
Laura Wells in New York)
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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