Privacy and Google: Are we missing the point in Schmidt’s comments?

When Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, recently explained his thoughts on privacy, most of the Internet lost its collective mind and screamed in outrage. However, while it is easy to blast Schmidt, and make no mistake he has been blasted, there is some truth in his words.

In an interview with CNBC, Schmidt was asked, “People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?”

In response he answered, “Judgment matters. If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines -- including Google -- do retain this information for some time… it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities.”

His comments are more general than focused. Despite that, it is odd to see the man who once blackballed CNET, because they posted personal information about him discovered on Google, make such claims.

In fact, the hypocritical context of those words likely led to the EFF’s (Electronic Frontier Foundation) comments that Schmidt's statement, “…makes it seem as if Google, a company that claims to care about privacy, is not even concerned enough to understand basic lessons about privacy and why it's important on so many levels.”

At the same time, too much has been read into his statements.

Schmidt and Google care about privacy, they do, but they also care about their business. Google’s business is information, and they get this information from you. So there will always be a fine line between what they collect and keep, and what is left anonymous and tossed aside.

Face it, this is the harsh reality of the Internet. If it is written about you, it is, or soon will be, available online for public consumption. If you published information yourself, you gave it away.

Schmidt’s statement isn’t about criminals wanting to hide details of their crime, and it's not about Google handing over your personal details to various federal agencies. It is about the fact that your personal information is already online, and if someone takes the time to discover it, they can collect it and use it. Google, if served by a federal warrant, will hand over the information they collect and keep.

However, if you used Google’s tools to opt out of this information gathering, you have less information to offer than those who didn’t opt out. The same is true for, Yahoo, and even Bing on some levels.

Again, Schmidt likely wanted to express that these days there is little privacy to be had online. That there are plenty of ways to discover personal information about a person, and that the only true way to avoid such information gathering is to either stop using the Web or severely limit the information about yourself you make available online.

The only problem is that limiting the information available about you online is easier said than done. This is why the EFF’s remarks were spot on. They are correct that privacy is important on so many levels, it isn’t just about hiding personal gaffs, incriminating pictures, or your Internet searches. Privacy is something we all expect, deserve, and thanks to the information age, lose more and more of each passing day.

How can we fix this problem? Well for starters, Giants like Google need to work with advocacy groups and government to structure data collection and usage. They do this on many levels already, but there is plenty of room for improvement. This process could take years though, and there will be plenty of errors along the way.

Another step to curb the privacy issues is to limit the scope of information collecting online aimed at advertising, as well as limit the availability of information one can gather from basic social networking usage. The EFF is a big advocate here. They need all the support they can get, and we as Internet users should push for stricter laws to protect ourselves.

There is another aspect to information collection that often goes ignored. When you register for a service online, you are already giving up personal information. There needs to be strict controls on how this data, such as name, address, phone number, and birth date, is used. Sure, there are laws that govern this already, but not everyone follows them, and there are clauses that allow them to do things like share with partners. Again, enforcing this is easier said than done.

Ultimately, Schmidt didn’t convey his points in the way he wanted to it seems. It is easy to read into them and rip him to shreds. On both sides of the privacy fight, there are arguments for and against what he said, but at the end of the day you control only a fraction of the information available about you online. So you should control it to the best of your ability and use your best judgment as to what is acceptable to give out and what is not. 

With organizations like the EFF fighting for you, the other information about you, that you often have little control over, will be locked up tight if they get their way. It will happen eventually, but don’t expect it to happen overnight. Many companies, like Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, make good money off information. As long as there is money to be made, the fight over privacy will continue.

[This editorial is the opinion of Steve Ragan and not necessarily those of the staff on The Tech Herald or the Monsters and Critics (M&C) network. Comments can be left below or sent to [email protected]]


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