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Vint Cerf on Google's privacy practices and how getting tagged in a multitude of online media is disconcerting

Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist explains, defends Google's privacy practices

By , Network World
October 13, 2011 12:29 PM ET
Vint Cerf

Network World - Few companies inspire the awe — and the dread about privacy concerns — that Google does, because of its search engine, Google maps and its Street View imagery, its Gmail e-mail and other cloud-based services.

Background: Vint Cerf: living legend and on out-of-this-world communications

From its inception, Google has been a compulsive collector, a hoarder, of information about its users, though the company is quick to say it's not personal. For instance, Gmail users get ads — a hefty part of its revenues — based on automated machine reading for e-mail content. "We tell everyone up front about how we match words in mail with ads," says Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist. "I don't consider that a violation of privacy."

The plain-spoken, erudite Cerf is well-qualified to wear the mantle of statesman of the Internet, having played a significant role in its very invention decades ago. Since joining Google six years ago in the "evangelist" role, he's found himself of late explaining and defending Google's practices related to privacy — particularly after last year's privacy blow-ups.

Google has perennially faced criticism for its massive data-collection practices from privacy advocates such as Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), among others. But perhaps nothing stirred up a storm as much as when the search giant last year admitted it had collected — by mistake, it says, for three years — information on open Wi-Fi networks when its Google Street View cars with mounted cameras were riding around neighborhoods in countries around the world to capture geographic data.

That touched off class-action lawsuits, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation (closed last October with the agency declining to take action) and actions by regulatory authorities in Europe, especially, calling Google to account.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the U.K. data-protection watchdog agency, the Information Commissioner's Office, said Google did break the law but didn't impose a fine, instead demanding Google submit to an audit of its privacy policies. The audit, completed this August, was generally approving but urged Google to ensure "that users are given more information about the privacy aspects of Google products."

The WiFi blow-up became a huge scandal in Germany, leading to Google agreeing to offer people an "op-out" to not to have where they live be included in Google Maps through a blurring process. Ilse Aigner, Germany's Consumer Protection Minister, last year urged all Germans to opt out, and told the German magazine Spiegel, "Google unfortunately seems to lack any kind of sensitivity when it comes to collecting personal data."

Hundreds of thousands of Germans did opt out. In April of this year, even though a German court declared what Google was doing was legal, Google decided to stop doing Street View imagery collection in its cars, though it will map German street names and the like.

In the whole WiFi blow-up, "the controversy was that we didn't tell people we were collecting that data. We stopped." Cerf says. "We wanted to figure out where hotspots were so we could locate them later. We could locate the device and provide location services on GPS if the user had that."

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