Google’s finally gone and done it – they’ve built and released a browser, the most fundamental window to the computing experience of a new era. That’s big news, but the small print is raising some concerns. What appears to be a recycled Terms of Service (from Google Docs) gives Google a long list of rights to reuse and share with other companies “any Content which you submit, post or display on or through the Services.” Update: Since this controversy has erupted, Google has removed the offending section of the Terms of Service. It seems that the default Google service TOS includes these kinds of claims, even though they may not be as appropriate in some circumstances as in others.
Google’s Matt Cutts dropped by our previous coverage to say that “no, we don’t want rights to everything you send through Chrome.” Can Google be trusted though? Below we review just the most recent history of privacy concerns raised about Google. It’s a mixed bag, but we argue that given this context, no individual case should be taken lightly.
Last November we wrote about how Google could fight Facebook by taking the high road regarding user privacy. A year later it might seem like user control over information is a more reasonable request, but neither concept seems to be getting a lot of respect.
There are big important questions about privacy online that need to be addressed. We discussed what some of those general questions were in January. Looking at them in regards to the particular steps taken by the Google giant is important as well.
The Creeping Crawl of the Social Graph API
In February of this year, we raised concerns about the new Google Social Graph API, which was going beyond indexing the formally declared social connections that the company focused on and in fact pulled in social graph data from MySpace and who knows where else. That controversy has died down, but our concerns still linger about this admittedly very useful sounding program.
Health Records and Privacy
In May Google launched Google Health, and privacy advocates shuddered in fear. In the end, we found Google Health’s privacy protections to be very strong. Perhaps it was because they were so strong that the whole application felt overly cautious, tame and unexciting. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
Handing Over Usernames
In July Google gave up YouTube user names to Viacom in a copyright lawsuit. Privacy watchdogs complained that Google should have resisted the pressure.
Streetview, the van-shot images of city streets around the world, has also faced criticism from privacy advocates. It faced a legal challenge in the UK in July. Last month Google faced allegations of streetview photographers driving past no-trespassing signs onto private roads – though the company claims such incidents were a mistake and have removed the found photos of private land.
We’ll Tell You Who Your Friends Are
One issue that made a small number of people very angry was the loose handling of Google Reader shared items. People you’ve emailed with repeatedly or who were otherwise understood as a contact using some Google algorithm were suddenly shown all the items you marked to “share” in Google Reader. Previously, shared items were something you exposed selectively by sharing an obscure URL for your shared items feed. Google’s initial response was to tell people to stop sharing if they didn’t like it, but last month the company finally implemented a more nuanced solution. Points for Google, after a fight.
Code of Compliance
Also in August, Google joined with Yahoo and Microsoft in working on a “Code of Conduct” that offered some luke-warm commitment to protecting free speech during the Olympics over the companies’ networks. The wording of the proposed agreement was very vague.
It Goes On and On…
This is just a short look at a few of the privacy issues people have raised about Google’s practices. Beyond the particular practices, though, there are inherent risks brought about by the huge amount of information Google controls. As we wrote in our post “Questions to Consider in the Coming Privacy Wars“
Hello, Google. Hello Google Search, Maps, Sky, Streetview, GMail, Docs, 23andMe genetics, Talk, Goog411, Google Scholar… surely I’m still missing a lot of the data that Google has collected about us.
Is data centralization in the hands of a single vendor an inherent threat to privacy? Yes. To draw an analogy, trusting the “Do No Evil” line is like saying you’d support a President that you like changing the constitution to allow warrantless wiretapping. Centralization of power, even if it’s exercised benevolently at any given time, is not in our best interest in the long term. In fact, I’d argue that it’s highly irrational.
That’s the context we see all this happening in. So if Google and Matt Cutts want to say “trust us, what we want is not what it looks like in a literal reading of that agreement you just singed on to” – well then we ask you, readers, to judge for yourself. It makes us feel very funny.
We love Google apps, but with great power…comes a responsibility to do something really extraordinary to protect our privacy while still delivering such great services. We’re still waiting for that.