Google Fails Privacy International's Internet Services Report

| About: Alphabet Inc. (GOOG)

Privacy International has poked Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the eye with a stick. In an interim report on the privacy ranking of the major Internet services, Google was the only company found among those surveyed to receive a failing grade, which Privacy International described as conducting comprehensive consumer surveillance and having entrenched hostility to privacy.

Needless to say, Google objects to the report and asserted that it didn’t have a chance to explain its privacy practices to Privacy International. In the latest twist, Privacy International Director Simon Davies said that two European journalists have asserted that Google representatives are claiming that the watchdog organization has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), which scored better than Google in the survey.

Source: Privacy International report. See full report.

The six-month investigation looked at twenty different factors, and used data from public sources, current and former employees and interviews with company representatives. Companies were graded on issues such as corporate administrative details and corporate leadership; data collection and processing; openness and transparency; responsiveness; ethical compass; customer and user control; fair gateways and authentication; and privacy enhancing innovations.

The European Commission is concerned about how Google’s data is used and Google’s planned acquisition of DoubleClick (DCLK) has privacy advocates charged up.

What’s becoming more evident is that as Google acquires more market power and user data, the company needs to provide leadership in establishing clear privacy guidelines in the best interest of its users. It’s not a matter of sending lobbyists to Washington D.C. to sway legislators on issues of importance to the company. Google needs to make sorting out privacy concerns a top priority. It’s not like dealing with the Chinese government on censorship.

See TechMeme for coverage of the Privacy International report and subsequent Google squabble.

Also Mitch Ratcliffe has added his perspective: “Just giving up our privacy for a little Web functionality and storage capacity is like handing over the mining rights to ancestral lands to the first guy who comes along with a better shovel.”

Here’s how the report characterized Google’s failures:

* Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Google’s services must accept that the company retains a large quantity of information about that user, often for an unstated or indefinite length of time, without clear limitation on subsequent use or disclosure, and without an opportunity to delete or withdraw personal data even if the user wishes to terminate the service.
* Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option. While it is true that many U.S. based companies have not yet established a time frame for retention, there is a prevailing view amongst privacy experts that 18 to 24 months is unacceptable, and possibly unlawful in many parts of the world.
* Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut. Google often maintains these records even after a user has deleted his profile or removed information from Orkut.
* Google collects all search results entered through Google Toolbar and identifies all Google Toolbar users with a unique cookie that allows Google to track the user’s web movement.17 Google does not indicate how long the information collected through Google Toolbar is retained, nor does it offer users a data expungement option in connection with the service.
* Google fails to follow generally accepted privacy practices such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines and elements of EU data protection law. As detailed in the EPIC complaint, Google also fails to adopt additional privacy provisions with respect to specific Google services.
* Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.
* Google fails to give users access to log information generated through their interaction with Google Maps, Google Video, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger and other services.