This week should have seen a public relations triumph for Google. The company began offering a free e-mail service with 100 times as much storage as Yahoo's $59.99 service. Instead the criticism has taken Google by surprise, as privacy advocates who had never before voiced criticism stepped forward. Google has previously responded to privacy concerns by saying, "we're nice, trust us" or pointing users to the company's mission statement of "do no evil". Such trite sentiments didn't work this time; even The Drudge Report piled in.
Google executives had ignored a fierce internal debate over the ethics of the service and on Wednesday afternoon rushed out a jokey April 1 press release, ostensibly to trump a New York Times scoop.
But it isn't so much Google searching email that has caused the anxiety from privacy watchdogs this week, as the company's confused retention policy. What will Google do with that data? Google's cookie is an index for all your searches until 2038, and sits alongside an Orkut cookie that tells Google - or friendly law enforcement officials or marketeers - exactly who you are. Google's Gmail will complete the picture, indexing private electronic discourse under the main Google search cookie.
"Once users register for Gmail, Google would be able to make that connection, if it chose to," Pam Dixon, head of the World Privacy Forum told the Los Angeles Times. "And if Google ever compared the two sets of data there are some people who would be chilled and embarrassed." Richard Smith, formerly at the Privacy Foundation pointed out that "Google kind of makes it easy to connect all the dots together."
Rather than allay these fears, Google's accident-prone co-founder Larry Page refused to rule out a future policy of 'joining the dots'. A simple "No, Never" would have prevented much of the damage. But asked if Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries, Page replied:
"It might be really useful for us to know that information. I'd hate to rule anything like that out."
"The contents of your Gmail account also are stored and maintained on Google servers in order to provide the service. Indeed, residual copies of email may remain on our systems, even after you have deleted them from your mailbox or after the termination of your account."
At a time when the American Library Association is advising librarians to destroy records of borrowing as soon as they can, to protect users privacy, it's an odd time to be boasting about infinite retention.
Clearly there's something of a reality gap in the upper echelons of the Googleplex. There's a disconnect between the jokey launch, and the statement that "machines, not humans" will read email that's every bit as unnerving as a President making jokes while citizens are being dismembered.
For archivist Daniel Brandt, it's reminiscent of the Doubleclick privacy scandal.
"Doubleclick bought acquired a company that had names and address in their database, and gleefully announced that now they could monetize their massive cookie and web-bug database by correlating it with names of individuals," he told us. "The privacy advocates jumped all over that one (it was in year 2000 or so), and Doubleclick had to abandon their plans. This time it's the same issue, but it's all within one company."
"While Google brags that no humans will read your emails, the entire Gmail program will involve extensive automated profiling of you as an individual. Google will be sharing the non-identifiable portions of your profile with anyone they choose. If the ownership of Google changes, or there is a merger, the entire personally-identifiable profile will be available to the new owners or partners."
Google has done an extraordinary job of sidestepping human responsibility by deploying machine rhetoric (what we call the 'Bill Gates defense') . But now it has to deal with grown ups, and this is its severest PR test yet. The rationale behind going public is business expansion; but Google can't add services unless people trust it.®
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