Under fire in Europe over its privacy practices, a senior Google executive admitted to German lawmakers that the company has made some mistakes in the past but insisted it remains firmly committed to protecting consumer privacy interests.
In an address to the Bavarian Parliament this week, Rachel Whetstone, Google’s senior vice president of communications and public policy, offered the company’s views on privacy, security and surveillance.
A transcript of her speech suggests a conciliatory tone on several issues.
“I want to start by making clear Google hasn’t always got this right,” Whetstone said about Google’s privacy record. “It’s not just about the errors we have made—with products like Buzz or the mistaken collection of WiFi data—but about our attitude too. These have been lessons learned the hard way.”
U.S. tech companies generally have been in the middle of the European political debate in recent times, and not always for the right reasons, she said. “Frankly some of the criticism is fair. As an industry we have sometimes been a little too high on our own success.”
But some of the perceptions about Google’s data collection practices are not entirely accurate, Whetstone said. While Google collects a lot of information, most of it is used to improve its online service and not to feed its ad business. In fact, Google’s search ads, which generate much of the company’s revenues, actually require very little personal information.
“Now, we’re under a lot of scrutiny in Europe because of our size. But it is precisely our size that enables us to invest a lot in security, which helps our users as well as the wider web,” Whetstone said.
Google’s security investments have helped the company cut in half the number of Google accounts that are hijacked. The company’s investments in technologies such as two-factor authentication and those for detecting suspicious log-in attempts have gone a long way in keeping Internet users safe on the Web. “Of course it is true that most of our services today are supported by advertising. But we view that as a positive because ads enable us to offer our products for free to everyone,” she said.
While Google has to comply with legitimate government and law enforcement requests for customer data, the company has not hesitated to push back against requests that are unreasonably broad or targeted at political activists and free speech. “No government—including the U.S. government—has backdoor access to Google or surveillance equipment on our networks,” Whetstone said.
Whetstone’s comments come amid heightening frustrations in Europe over Google’s stance on issues like the European Union’s “Right to Be Forgotten” directive. The mandate basically allows EU residents to ask search engine companies such as Google to remove links in search engine results to articles that are defamatory, incorrect or incomplete. Google has agreed to honor such requests but has said it will only remove links in search engine results appearing in the EU.
EU privacy commissioners want Google to remove links from search results even in its primary Google.com site. Google has so far refused to do so.
Google and EU lawmakers have butted heads on other issues as well. Lawmakers in Spain, for example, want Google to pay copyright fees to Spanish publishers for every snippet of text that the company uses on its Google News site. Google refused to do so and instead shut down its Google News service in Spain last year.
German lawmakers passed a similar law last year, and other EU nations are considering similar laws as well, meaning Google could be headed for similar confrontations in the future.
More recently, Google has come under fire for its alleged delay in informing WikiLeaks members of a U.S. government request for access to their email accounts back in 2012.