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Google values its own privacy. How does it value yours?

GMail meets G-Men

Analysis It's absurd to suggest that Google doesn't appreciate the value of privacy. When it comes to its own privacy, the company takes it very seriously indeed.

Let's recap some of the ways. Sometimes Google is so obsessively private that it gets into trouble when it shouldn't. The company's finances are formally a black hole, although great hopes rest on the imminent IPO reviving the tech sector. The company also sets new standards of secrecy when it comes to publishing research. Google is a paradise for researchers in every way but one. Staff are allowed twenty per cent of their time for "self-directed research" - which gives them plenty of hours in the week to make ships in bottles, if they so wish. It's one of the least product-orientated policies in Silicon Valley, and explains why Google continues to recruit top grade talent from its Valley neighbors. But there's one catch: Google doesn't publish any of its research, giving it the reputation of a lousy corporate citizen. Instead Google publishes lists of PhDs, but this isn't the same thing. So Google's R&D department is a black hole, too.

It does however allow staff to publish the daily Googleplex menu. On this day last year you could have chosen between Joaquin's Potato Salad - steamed fingerling potatoes, with red onion, English peas, basil, parsley and a lemon aioli - and Portabella Mushroom Pizza - Roasted portabella mushrooms topped with a roasted tomato sauce, kalamata olives, pepperonchinis and parmesan. All quite delicious, but it's hard to see how it advances the field of computer science. Because nothing gets published, peer review works only if the peers are other Google employees: a disturbing trend which could lead to a company monoculture.

In one example well known to Register readers, Google refused to publish a formal inclusion policy for its News site. Google News is the fifth largest web destination in the world, and can be considered as one of the largest disseminators of News on the planet. Although it privately informs news outlets why they have been rejected, it won't publish a policy. As a conequence, when Google began to include corporate and lobby group press releases on the site, it led to some agonizing contortions.

Take this remarkable statement by Google News creator Krishna Bharat and see if you can work out whether or not Google includes press releases as news (emphasis added):-

Press releases we don't consider to be a news source, that's for sure. … I don't want to go and police all the news out there. I've seen lots of articles where the press release appears verbatim. Do we wait for that to show up hours late, or do we allow people to use it and act on it -- especially when it's a business item?

There are no press releases on the browsable pages or news pages. We have a higher editorial responsibility on those because we're telling you where you should look. On the news pages, we do not intend to use press releases. … Making a press release available as part of the search results gives the full facts that were available to the reporter when they wrote it.

Confused? Let's translate:

"Google News doesn't consider press releases to be news. We don't want to be selective. But we are selective, and we consider press releases to be news, especially when it represents a commercial interest. In any case, we have news pages where we don't want to use press releases. Except there we do, because it's good for you."

Perhaps confusion was the intention. We only quote this at length here because that exchange six months ago was echoed with the confused reaction to the privacy outcry last week.

How to boil a frog

'I keep asking for a product called Serendipity,' said Eric Schmidt recently. USA Today reported that "this product would have access to everything ever written or recorded, know everything the user ever worked on and saved to his or her personal hard drive, and know a whole lot about the user's tastes, friends and predilections."

Google is already close to this goal, and if it isn't Google itself that attempts to introduce such a product, we can be sure that someone else will think it's a good idea.

Privacy is a lot more subtle than it's often portrayed. But it comes down to trust, and an organization is as good as it is trustworthy. The events of the past week are alarming not so much for Gmail itself, but Google's reaction to the controversy. And that tells us a lot. Google sees privacy asymmetrically: privacy is good for Google, but it can't understand why anyone else would be concerned. Schmidt's Serendipity, along with Larry Page's recent boob about wishing to have a Google brain implant, show that Google's technical ambitions far outpace its sense of social responsibility.

The flippant April 1 Gmail press release was ill-advised, and signaled that the company didn't expect any controversy. In waded Larry Page who refused to rule out cross-linking personal searches and email, in reports published on April 2:

"Larry Page wouldn't say whether Google planned to link Gmail users to their Web search queries. 'It might be really useful for us to know that information" to make search results better, he said. 'I'd hate to rule anything like that out,'" reported the Los Angeles Times.

Four days later, with Larry wisely hidden out of harm's way under the stairs, Google VP of Engineering Wayne Rosing faced the fire. "Rosing said there will be an information firewall separating Google's search engine from Gmail," AP reported on April 6. "'We don't use the data collected on one service, ' he said, 'to enhance another,'". Two days later in the New York Times Rosing was less emphatic: "We have no immediate plans to do so in the future," he said.

So Google had four statements on whether or not it cross-linked search queries and email in a week. Unlike the News controversy, this time people noticed. On April 8 the company also clarified its data retention policy in its privacy statement, making clear that mail may be retained on backups, removing the implication that you couldn't remove your mail files from a closed account even if you wanted to.

Much of the controversy was therefore avoidable. As a measure of how much damage the episode has done to Google, the final firebreak has been reached in defense of the email service. This is the classic libertarian argument that shoppers need not use it if they so wish, or as we call it here, "The Shrug". But this fatalistic line of argument vacates any moral responsibility, throwing it instead onto the "market", which can be relied on to deliver the best of all possible worlds, as we all know. A more honest answer would be simply to profess not to care about privacy.

The erosion of privacy and the intrusion of commercial spam in our lives is subtle. Like boiling a frog alive, we rarely notice how much we've lost until its too late. Unless we draw a line now, reminding companies like Google - which exhibit a kind of corporate Asperger's Syndrome when it comes to privacy - of exactly what we value, then in ten years time it will be too late.

"It's ironic," writes one reader, "for a company that says Do No Evil - they don't know the definition." After Gmail, what price Serendipity? ®

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