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11/28/05

Is Google becoming irrelevant and a big threat to your privacy?

I like using google as my default search engine, however I am beginning to have reservations about this for several reasons. One is that they are so concerned about not being spammed and not having their system manipulated that they are punishing websites that are not doing any of those things.

I'll give you a couple of examples. http://www.kidsearchnetwork.org is a website about missing children, child safety, and free child id kits. It's run by a nonprofit organization. It has more information about missing and abducted children than any other website. There is legislative info, research and statistical data, the ability to search for missing children by state, search for registered sex offenders by state, success stories where the organization has found missing children, featured missing child cases, and more. Google doesn't rank it in the top 100 missing child websites, let alone the top 10. Do a search for "missing children" or "free child id kits" or "child safety" on google. Then compare the top 10 websites to The Kidsearch Network Website and tell me if you think the top 10 results are more relevant to the search.

Second example; RunawayTeens.org which is #1 in MSN for the term "runaway teens". It is also run by a nonprofit and contains great information about runaway teens, how they can get a bus ticket home, how they can get food and shelter, how parents can prevent them from running away and how to recognize the signs your child might be thinking of running away. Google puts the same website at #41 last time I checked.

If in their zealousness to police their results from being manipulated, they are giving users less relevant websites at the top of those results, then they have defeated their own purpose, to be the search engine with the most relevant results.

The next issue of being associated with or even using google as my default search engine is about privacy. At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words "neck" and "snap." The data were taken from the defendant's computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which - unbeknownst to many users - keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.

Google has long presented itself as the anti-Microsoft, a company that the digerati regard as a force for good in the technology world. In many ways, it has lived up to that reputation. But if it wants to hold on to its corporate halo, Google should do a better job of including users in decisions about how their personal information is collected, stored, and shared.

Google has succeeded so extraordinarily because its founders were able to see the future of the Internet more clearly than the rest of Silicon Valley. At a time when "Web portals" - sites that directed users to online services - were seen as the future, Mr. Brin and Mr. Page were convinced Internet searches would be pivotal. They developed technology that was far better than other search engines at sifting through the galaxy of information online. They slapped a typo of a name on their project - a misspelling of "googol," the number represented by a 1 followed by 100 zeroes - got venture capital, and quickly built a company.

Google operates according to two core principles. One is its mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The other is its motto, "Don't be evil," which Mr. Brin and Mr. Page take so seriously that they included it in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. As Google grows and spreads into new areas, these two principles are turning out to be in tension. Google's book search, for example, aims to make books universally accessible in a way some authors regard as dismissive of their rights and illegal.

The biggest area where Google's principles are likely to conflict is privacy. Google has been aggressive about collecting information about its users' activities online. It stores their search data, possibly forever, and puts "cookies" on their computers that make it possible to track those searches in a personally identifiable way - cookies that do not expire until 2038. Its e-mail system, Gmail, scans the content of e-mail messages so relevant ads can be posted. Google's written privacy policy reserves the right to pool what it learns about users from their searches with what it learns from their e-mail messages, though Google says it won't do so. It also warns that users' personal information may be processed on computers located in other countries.

The government can gain access to Google's data storehouse simply by presenting a valid warrant or subpoena. Under the Patriot Act, Google may not be able to tell users when it hands over their searches or e-mail messages. If the federal government announced plans to directly collect the sort of data Google does, there would be an uproar - in fact there was in 2003, when the Pentagon announced its Total Information Awareness program, which was quickly shut down.

In the early days of the Internet, privacy advocates argued that data should be collected on individuals only if they affirmatively agreed. But businesses like Google have largely succeeded in reversing the presumption. There is a privacy policy on the site, but many people don't read privacy policies. It is hard to believe most Google users know they have a cookie that expires in 2038, or have thought much about the government's ability to read their search history and stored e-mail messages without them knowing it.

Google says it needs the data it keeps to improve its technology, but it is doubtful it needs so much personally identifiable information. Of course, this sort of data is enormously valuable for marketing. The whole idea of "Don't be evil," though, is resisting lucrative business opportunities when they are wrong. Google should develop an overarching privacy theory that is as bold as its mission to make the world's information accessible - one that can become a model for the online world. Google is not necessarily worse than other Internet companies when it comes to privacy. But it should be doing better.

http://www.newsandmediablog.com

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