Is Google 'hostile to privacy'?

There are worse privacy offenders than Google

Privacy International has released preliminary findings of its study of privacy practices at 20 major Net companies, and has named Google the worst of a generally bad lot.

In its cheerfully color-coded system, only Google receives PI's black spot, labeled "Hostile to Privacy." Reading the comments in the prelim report (PDF), it seems Google is getting dinged primarily for a) collecting oodles of information, b) being vague about what it does with this data, and c) not returning PI's phone calls. Frustrating, yes. Alarming, maybe. But hostile?

If this was merely PI's way of getting Google's attention, it worked. Google allegedly responded by spreading rumors that PI was in Microsoft's pocket. (Knowing Simon Davies, PI's London-based head honcho, I'd say 'not bloody likely.') Davies responded to that by publishing a strongly worded open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The spitting match continues.

Other Net giants didn't fare much better. None of the 20 sites received PI's highest ranking ("privacy friendly and enhancing" -- a Robin Hood green), and only the BBC, eBay, Last.fm, LiveJournal, and Wikipedia were rated "generally privacy aware but in need of improvement" (hospital blue). AOL, Apple, Facebook, Hi5, Reunion.com, Windows Live Space, and Yahoo were labeled blood red "Substantial Threats."

It's great that organizations like the UK-based Privacy International (and its US counterparts like EPIC, EFF, and CDT) are fighting for individual rights in an increasingly surveilled world. But I think they may be overreaching a bit with this one.

I can think of plenty of folks hostile to privacy -- like China, the two dozen other countries that censor citizen access to the Internet, and our current administration. But Google is not the boogie man. At least, not yet.

Of course, I know what you're thinking, but the rest of the world doesn't. Share it with them below, or send a confidential e-mail to cringe@infoworld.com. Top tipsters may receive a Cringe bag that blows their cover forever.

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Robert X. Cringely

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