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Privacy Group Slaps Google, Fans Slap Back

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The blogosphere erupted over the weekend after Privacy International released a scathing (damning) report declaring Google the worst of the bunch at protecting privacy – well, they used words like "ambivalent" and even "hostile." But critics inside and outside of Google are calling the report unfair and poorly researched.

Privacy Group Slaps Google, Fans Slap Back
Privacy Group Slaps Google, Fans Slap Back

Boiling down Danny Sullivan’s response to the report to two or three words might be selling him short by about 5,000 words and 13 pages. And Google’s Matt Cutts had more than a few choice words of his own.

In a study that examined the biggest online presences, Google came out at the bottom and Privacy International (PI) was heavy on the shame. When Google heads accused the group of having too close a relationship with Microsoft, the indignation coming from across the Pond was so palpable that it was nearly French (gratuitous cheap shot, no emails please ;-) ).

From PI’s Open Letter to Google:

I believe an apology from you [Eric Schmidt] is in order, but if you cannot deliver this then I think you should reflect carefully on the actions of your representatives before embarking on what I believe amounts to a smear campaign. As with Microsoft, eBay and any other organization we are more than happy to work with you to help resolve the many privacy challenges for Google that our report has highlighted.

Yours sincerely
Simon Davies,
Director
Privacy International

Sullivan responded with the aforementioned verbosity, calling the report "haphazard" and "inept." Why such a white-gloved slap? Sullivan thinks they’ve relied on more second-hand information than on primary sources, and the result is that the study’s authors ignored some significant measurements.

Danny went through the study’s conclusions one by one, examining administrative details, corporate leadership, data collection and processing, data retention, responsiveness, "ethical compass," customer control, fair gateways and authentication, and privacy innovations.

 

After all that, Danny could only agree on a couple of points, mainly regarding Google’s data retention policies.

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 wors[t]. 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.

 

Google’s Matt Cutts decided to sleep on it before responding, but he still woke up angry. On his blog notes these counterpoints:

  • Google didn’t leak user queries (AOL did)
  • Google didn’t fold to DOJ demands (everyone else did)
  • Google agreed to anonymize its logs after a certain amount of time

"I believe this report could corrode earnest efforts to improve privacy at companies around the internet, wrote Cutts. "Why? Because the bottom-line takeaway message that I got from the report is that a company can work hard on privacy issues and still get dragged into the mud.

"Consider: in the last year or so, other companies gave users’ queries to the government, leaked millions of raw user queries, or even sold user queries and still came off better than Google did."

Looks like this argument is far from over. Stay tuned.
 

Privacy Group Slaps Google, Fans Slap Back
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