Monday, September 17, 2007

Google's Press for Global Privacy Fans Flames

GOOGLE CALLED FOR A SET of global standards for protecting consumer Web privacy at a recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ethics conference. Although privacy counsel Peter Fleischer pegged the move as part of Google's job as an Internet leader "to show some leadership and be constructive," insiders say it's a thinly veiled attempt to get ahead of the privacy woes that have dogged its pending DoubleClick buy.

"It's clear that this is motivated in part to dampen the growing opposition to the DoubleClick takeover," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD). "Google is attempting to head off a global regulatory digital train wreck."

In the U.S., the FTC is investigating the $3.1 billion acquisition from an anti-competitive standpoint, but concerns about Google's search data collection and retention policies (and melding them with DoubleClick's) have also factored into the scrutiny.

Meanwhile, in July, pressures from the EU led the search giant to scale back the length of time it would retain user data (from indefinitely to no longer than 18 months), although European regulators now have their eyes on the DoubleClick deal as well.

CDD is scheduled to participate in already scheduled press briefing today on "Google, Online Advertising, and Privacy" along with representatives from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"Google is under enormous pressure from many countries around the world who are fed up with their arrogance and their unwillingness to make meaningful changes to their business practices," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. "They are also trying desperately to push the acquisition of DoubleClick through the Federal Trade Commission. And they've met enormous resistance."

Fleischer addressed the criticism directly, at a press conference (in Strasbourg, where the UNESCO meeting was held), saying: "By supporting global privacy standards, there will be a debate and part of that debate will be what our motives are." He added that Google would be pushing for the standards "regardless of whether DoubleClick were part of the equation or not." He also added that CEO Eric Schmidt would be publicly underscoring the company's stance on user privacy and protection some time in the future.

Nonetheless, the conference provided an International forum for Google to reinforce its 'don't be evil' mantra--and the search giant did it by endorsing a set of privacy standards established by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

The APEC Privacy Framework focuses on "preventing harm" to users--by emphasizing security safeguards and imposing limitations on how much personal information can be collected. Google acknowledged that the APEC standards are only a starting point--as they were drafted and approved by 21 members of APEC in 2004, and need to be adapted for global use and acceptance three years later.

Fleischer added: "It is absolutely imperative that these standards are aligned to today's commercial realities and political needs, but they must also reflect technological realities."

Critics argued that the search giant gave no specifics for how to move forward with a global implementation--calling it another sign that the endorsement was just Google posturing for the FTC.

"Mr. Fleisher is lobbying to get a privacy Band-aid placed over an ever-growing flow of personal data being squeezed from consumers (by Google and others)," said Chester.

According to Jonah Stein, Web privacy expert and senior SEM director, Alchemist Media, the search giant has a vested interest in helping to establish International privacy standards that goes beyond the DoubleClick deal.

"Google certainly wants to make sure the deal goes through with the FTC, but we do need global standards, and they are a global player," said Stein. "When you look at the EU and some of the other legal entities they have to deal with, it's not unreasonable for them to try to find an international standard that everyone else can agree on."

Stein also said that the move should not have come as a surprise. What may be less surprising is that even in the midst of this announcement, the search giant was facing government and media scrutiny in Canada--with speculation as to whether Google's Street View map feature will violate Canadian privacy laws.

The feature that shows still video footage of locations when users click on map markers has not gone live in Canada yet, but caused skeptics to wave the privacy flag in the U.S. when the shots were found to contain glimpses of pedestrians' faces in detail.