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Roger Clarke's 'Google - Privacy Perspective'

Google - The Privacy Perspective

Roger Clarke **

Version of 15 December 2005

Invited short contribution to 'Google: Search or Destroy?', a discussion in the U.K.-based media outlet Open Democracy

This is an excerpt from a paper and invited presentation to a seminar on 'Google: Infinite Library, Copyright Pirate, or Monopolist?', at the National Institute of Social Sciences and Law, A.N.U., Canberra, on 9 December 2005

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Google is not just a service. It's a corporation that provides many services, which are increasingly inter-linked. The foundation was, and remains, the search-engine. The company has developed a range of extensions to the basic service, many of which usefully restrict the scope of the search, e.g. to images only, or to items of academic interest, as with Google Scholar. The company has also branched into a wide range of additional lines of business, some by takeover, and some through internal development. Significant among them are GMail, Google Library , Google Earth, Orkut and Google Desktop.

Google is structuring its business portfolio in order to achieve cross-leveraging. A form of cross-leveraging that is of especial concern is the consolidation of information about the behaviour of users of multiple Google-provided services. Critics of Google's behaviour have made much of a statement by its CEO to financial analysts: "We are moving to a Google that knows more about you" (reported in The New York Times of 10 February 2005, and subsequently in many other places).

At this stage in its development, Google the corporation has the following streams of data about its users available to it:

There is no evidence that the Google corporation has yet moved to mine this data; but this would in any case be a strategically unwise manoeuvre at this early stage. There are various protections nominated in the various privacy policies, none of which are anything like adequate, and all of which are malleable at the will of the company.

Email also harbours threats to privacy, especially when reduced to a web-service. Google's Gmail is a particularly untrustworthy provider. It refuses to explain the circumstances under which it releases its subscribers' information, and the number of occasions on which it has done so. Moreover, Gmail's special features have considerably extended the list of risks. Its subscribers are subject to targeted ads based on text from senders. Google is in a strong position to correlate the ads with other data it holds, including, if and when it chooses to do so, with the content of the emails.

Importantly, the threats extend beyond Gmail subscribers to the individuals who send message to Gmail subscribers. The text is examined, is retained long-term, and is subject to largely uncontrolled use and disclosure. The result has been that some people decline to correspond with people via Gmail addresses.

The early, socially-oriented era of the Web is being swamped by the contemporary dominance of corporate interests. Coupled with the corruption of longstanding copyright law to advantage big business, the tensions between human and corporate interests on the Internet are now very high, and will mostly be resolved against the interests of individuals. Google is a major player in this arena. Its claim that "You can make money without doing evil" is being put to the test, as its growth and diversification puts enormous temptations in front of its executives. They are clearly having a great deal of trouble resisting those temptations.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 8 December 2005 - Last Amended: 15 December 2005 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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