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Google: privacy pariah or smear victim?

By Paul McNamara on Mon, 06/11/07 - 8:27am.

Google is the worst thing to happen to personal privacy since the invention of the telescope.

So says Privacy International in a damning report released over the weekend that ranks the search giant as the absolute worst of the worst when it comes to privacy issues.

Balderdash, says a Google blogger, as well as a high-profile search industry watcher, who contend that it's the shoddy and hyperbolic report that is deserving of scorn.

From this AP story:

In a report released Saturday, London-based Privacy International assigned Google its lowest possible grade. The category is reserved for companies with "comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy."

None of the 22 other surveyed companies - a group that included Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AOL - sunk to that level, according to Privacy International.

Google's preeminent blogger, Matt Cutts, could barely contain his anger and contempt for the report in this post:

Sigh. Okay, take deep breaths, Matt. My spleen is vented. Personally, I think Privacy International should feel remorse about walking right past several other companies to single out Google for their lowest rating. But I think that there's a larger danger here too. I believe this report could corrode earnest efforts to improve privacy at companies around the internet. Why? Because the bottom-line takeaway message that I got from the report is that a company can work hard on privacy issues and still get dragged into the mud. Consider: in the last year or so, other companies gave users' queries to the government, leaked millions of raw user queries, or even sold user queries and still came off better than Google did.

Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land has no trouble scoring this bout in favor of Google, writing:

It's a bad privacy day for Google, with Privacy International first accusing the company of having the worst privacy performance of any internet service company in a study it has just released and then accusing Google of conducting a smear campaign against it. But if you actually read the report, Privacy International itself comes off bad for putting out a haphazard condemnation of Google.

The "smear campaign" he references there - as opposed to the one critics of the report see against Google - involves accusations that a Microsoft employee involved with Privacy International has his fingerprints on the Google damnation. It's a rabbit hole you can pretty much avoid unless you've got time to burn.

Sullivan does a detailed analysis of the charges levied against Google by the organization and comes to this conclusion:

Overall, looking at just the performance of the best companies PI found shows that Google measures up well - and thus ranking it the worse simply doesn't seem fair. But the bigger issue is that the report itself doesn't appear to be as comprehensive or fully researched as it is billed.

My first-cup-of-coffee take: Google takes much heat for being what it is rather than what it does, although features such as Street View practically beg for condemnation by privacy advocates. On the whole, though, the conclusion by Privacy International seems difficult to support.