Today, Google announced that the international community hasn’t done nearly enough to promote privacy protection for Internet users. Google’s global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, was quoted as stating that serious advances in the field of privacy protection need to be made very quickly, i.e. within the next five years.
This story is striking as it finds Google arguing from a standpoint that is either very suspicious or very refreshing. As the world’s preferred search engine and as the purveyors of arguably the largest cache of personal information in history, Google is in a position to financially benefit from the exploitation of such information more so than any other online player; the announcement that more needs to be done to protect this data is surprising coming from Google.
So far, Google has done well by its users. Considering how much Google knows about us, we should probably consider ourselves lucky that Google has shown as much restraint as it has through the present. To this end, Google’s vocal distaste with the lack of privacy protection should be reassuring that Google has no plans on changing its policies anytime soon. Perhaps, the fact that this announcement comes in the wake of MySpace’s decision to use personal data for advertising purposes is no coincidence. If Google can’t/won’t benefit from the use of personal information, maybe they feel that no one else should either.
If this is the case, then I applaud Google, as I believe that we should always err to the side of the protection of privacy, considering how slippery that slope can get due to the transparency of user actions online. However, it is possible and even likely, depending on your level of paranoia, that Google’s announcement is less beneficent than it seems. After all, if Google spearheads the efforts to create global privacy rules, which they may feel are inevitable, then they can have a hand in their creation. Google is the most influential online entity right now; who’s to say where they’ll be in five years or where their competition will be? If Google has influence in shaping such rules, even in an indirect manner, then they will be among the companies with the best opportunity to circumvent them.
Few people like leviathans and even fewer people trust them. Google has managed to become one without really instilling the kind of hatred or mistrust that predecessors like Microsoft have dealt with. However, this issue of privacy protection has the potential to turn people against Google due to the sheer volume of data that Google has on its users. So, does Google truly wish to protect our privacy or does it simply want a hand in shaping the future of privacy protection for its own benefit? Or is Google just preempting it’s doubters with a solid PR move by calling for concern without actually proposing anything more than an arbitrary five-year deadline?
It’s still too early to tell, but we’ll be paying attention to Google’s future actions and, more importantly, to the actions of its peers who have either remained silent on the issue or have already moved to begin using our personal data for financial gain.