10 Issues Google Needs to Remember About Web Privacy

By Don Reisinger  |  Posted 2010-04-21 Print this article Print

News Analysis: Trying to find the right balance between Web privacy and the free flow of information is difficult. However, striking this balance is absolutely necessary. Here, eWEEK examines 10 Web privacy issues Google should consider each and every day, especially as the search engine giant's business grows into new areas.

On April 20, Google was sent a letter from 10 countries around the world urging the search giant to do a better job of safeguarding user privacy. The letter specifically targeted the Google Buzz social networking service, as well as Google Street View. For its part, Google said it has commented on privacy issues in the past and wouldn't discuss it further. Such a response makes sense. Google has been faced with privacy concerns for quite a while now. And each time, the company has responded. Addressing yet another privacy letter probably wouldn't help its cause all that much.

But that doesn't mean Google shouldn't take these countries' message to heart. Google hasn't been the most privacy-conscious company on the Web for quite some time. With Buzz and Street View, Google has engaged in some practices that have made privacy watchdogs raise an eyebrow. It's not that Google is untrustworthy-the company can definitely be trusted-but it has made several privacy missteps in the false belief that users would either accept its policies or ignore them. And now, Google finds itself in the unenviable position of being forced to deal with privacy complaints.

Google needs to work harder at improving user privacy. Here are 10 issues it can't ignore.

1. Google Street View can be intrusive without proper vetting

As useful as Street View is, European countries especially have had some objections to it. Some originally contended that Google was showing enough identifying information to potentially violate a person's privacy. In response, Google has removed all identifying information in those countries so that no one can determine who might be in a particular picture. It's a good first step. But the reality is, Street View can be intrusive if the search giant doesn't consistently vet its images. When the service was first launched, several non-Google Websites cropped up showing interesting, funny and sometimes scary findings in Street View. The service has become integral to Google's slate of offerings, but it arguably needs to offer the most privacy of any Google tool.

2. Users largely want anonymity

Although the Internet is becoming increasingly social and some Web users are coming out of the shadows to reveal their true identity, the Internet is still a place of anonymity. As much as Google might want to push Web users forward and get them away from anonymity, users still want it. Google needs to appreciate that. Helping make the Web more open is fine. But ostracizing users who rebel against that move isn't the best idea.

3. Bundling a social network with an e-mail program isn't always best

The countries that wrote the letter to Google took issue with the search giant's decision to bundle Buzz with an e-mail program. They contended that a social tool has no place in a "one-to-one" messaging platform. It's not the craziest thing I've heard. When Google launched Buzz, it allowed a user's most contacted Gmail acquaintances to be viewed by friends. Users also weren't able to hide specific information when it first launched, which caused some folks to stay away from Buzz. Google eventually fixed the social network's privacy issues, but it called into question the company's decision to offer social networking in an e-mail program. In retrospect, Google probably wouldn't do that again.

4. Users trust long track records

If nothing else, Web users want to know that they can trust a company for the long haul. Any online company that has a long track record of protecting the privacy of its users typically enjoys far more loyalty than others that don't. Google needs to remember that although it's arguably the most important Web company, it can't be complacent about privacy. Microsoft is starting to gain some ground on Google online. If it can make moves that would cause users to trust it more than Google, it could cause trouble for the search giant. The longer the privacy track record, the better.

Don Reisinger is a freelance technology columnist. He started writing about technology for Ziff-Davis' Gearlog.com. Since then, he has written extremely popular columns for CNET.com, Computerworld, InformationWeek, and others. He has appeared numerous times on national television to share his expertise with viewers. You can follow his every move at http://twitter.com/donreisinger.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel