Privacy Group Flunks Google

Even Google's history of being the only search company to refuse to hand over subpoenaed search results doesn't mean it's not negligent of privacy accountability, user control and transparency, Privacy International says.

A U.K. privacy group has issued a scathing report on large Internet players privacy records, going so far as to flunk Google altogether.

Privacy International, a privacy NGO, spent six months working on the report (PDF), titled "Race to the Bottom? 2007." The group says it based its rankings on data derived from public sources including newspaper articles, blog entries, submissions to government inquiries and privacy policies; information provided by present and former company staff; technical analysis; and interviews with company representatives.

PI Director Simon Davies insists that news accounts and the blogosphere have been overly focused on Googles poor rating since it was published on June 9. But on a color scale ranging from green (privacy-friendly and privacy-enhancing) to black (comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy), PI draped black crepe only around Google.

The report is sketchy, and the means by which it arrived at its conclusions are anything but apparent. PI says that because its rankings are a "precedent," its regarding its initial effort as a "consultation report" meant to open up dialogue. The group plans to publish a full report in September that will take into account "any new and relevant information," it said on its site.

"Over the course of the next two and a half months, our aim is to extract an unprecedented quantity of data about the full extent of whats happening to our privacy. I have a feeling in my bones that privacy is going to come front and center as an issue, and companies wont be able to hide behind [the rationale of business models]," the Davies said in an interview with eWEEK.

One rationale the group gives on its spreadsheet report for flunking Google is that a privacy mandate "is not embedded throughout the company. Techniques and technologies frequently rolled out without adequate public consultation (e.g. Street level view)."

That, in particular, is a complaint thats been circulating widely. Googles online map service, "Street View," has been accused of snapping photos too close to peoples private homes and of people on the street who dont know theyre being watched.

Indeed, PIs report is only the most recent of a barrage of criticism leveled against Googles treatment of user information.

A European Union panel on privacy rights in May launched an investigation into whether Googles practice of storing and retaining user information for up to two years abides by the EUs privacy rules. Google is due to address these concerns before the panels next meeting at the end of June.

Privacy groups in particular have targeted Google over its proposed merger with DoubleClick. EPIC on June 6 beefed up its original complaint (PDF) with the Federal Trade Commission over the deal, adding to the argument its reasons why the FTC should consider consumer privacy interests when mulling over the merger between "the Internets largest search profiling company and the Internets largest targeted advertising company." The complaint, filed by multiple privacy groups, claims to show evidence about Googles and DoubleClicks business practices that fail to comply with generally accepted privacy safeguards.

The complaints against Google go on. Wikipedia even has an entry devoted to "Criticisms of Google" in which privacy concerns constitute one of the largest sections.

Google replied to the PI report by saying in a statement that the company is "disappointed" that the report is "based on numerous inaccuracies and misunderstandings about Googles products and services." Google had not responded to a request for specifics on what PIs inaccuracies and misunderstandings are by the time this article was posted.

Google also cried foul about the surprise nature of the attack. "None of these allegations were shared with us prior to publication, so we did not have the chance to correct any of them," said a spokesperson in an e-mail exchange. "User trust is central to our business, and that is why we aggressively protect our users privacy. We stand by our record for protecting user privacy and offering products that are transparent about what information is collected and empower users to control their personal data."

Next Page: Googles privacy policies.