Google needs to take the high ground

Ovum/David Bradshaw
15 Jun 2007

Google has recently found itself on the wrong end of the privacy debate with the EU's Data Protection Working Party and with voluntary human rights watchdog group Privacy International.

Ovum principle analyst David Bradshaw comments:

The exchange with the EU was relatively cordial, and resulted in some changes from Google - most notably the reduction in its retention period from 24 months to 18 for web search records, and reducing the time it takes for cookies placed on users' computers to expire.

Its encounter with Privacy International has been less cordial. Google was the only company to gain the lowest possible rating of 'Hostile to privacy' in Privacy International's report 'A Race to the Bottom: Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies'. One of the comments in the ranking described Google as having a 'track record of ignoring privacy concerns'. Rubbing salt into the wound, Privacy International gave Microsoft's main public web property, Live Space, a significantly higher ranking than Google.

Subsequently, Privacy International wrote an open letter to Google. In the letter, it alleges that Google representatives had told two journalists that Privacy International had a conflict of interest because a Microsoft employee is on Privacy International's 70-member advisory board. If anyone at Google has been conducting a smear campaign against Privacy International, Google's management needs to tell them how foolish and counter-productive this is.

Early in the development of the web search market, another search company Alta Vista squandered the trust of its users by not clearly identifying sponsored search results. As this became known, the issue of trust became explicit for users, with the result that a large majority directed their home pages away from Alta Vista. Google became the major beneficiary because, by clearly labelling sponsored search results, it had explicitly acted in a more trustworthy manner than its rivals.

Privacy is something that most of us implicitly take for granted. As the saying goes, 'On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog'. However, that stops being the case when a company takes a strong enough interest in what you're doing to place a cookie on your computer that identifies you and also keeps your search records for a long period of time. What sort of animal you are is very easy to see. As more users become aware of these issues, the more worried they become.

Google's business depends on trust from its users. Without that trust, most of its revenue would be under threat. Google has no choice but to take the high ground over privacy of its users. Making a concession here and there to privacy lobbyists and regulators is not good enough. Google's commercial position is so strong that if it sets an example in openness about privacy, everyone else will be forced to follow. Failing to act will lead to history repeating itself.

David Bradshaw is principle analyst in Ovum's software group.

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