Monday, September 17, 2007

Google offers olive branch to privacy activists

Google, the data behemoth and "internet superpower" (The Economist) has recently suffered from extensive sympathy withdrawal. Founded by two Stanford graduate students and rising meteorically to utter domination of the internet search market (recent market share: 48 per cent), the company originally managed to present a public face that endeared it to many, summed up in its corporate slogan "don't be evil". This translated nicely into healthy corporate profits: in the first quarter of 2007, Google earned 1 bn. US $ (up 69 per cent on the previous year) on a turnover of 2.53 bn. US $.

But popularity can fade quickly, the company had to learn. Criticisms were mounted about Google's acceptance of the Chinese government's censorship demands, and the unparalleled data collection of the firm triggered sceptical questions as to its goals. These questions became more pressing as Google came bottom in a privacy ranking of internet service companies conducted by Privacy International this summer.

Now Google has decided to reclaim the moral high ground by publicly calling for new international laws to be set up to protect personal information online (see reports by the Financial Times, the BBC, and c't [in German]). At a UNESCO conference on "Internet Ethics", the firm's Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer called for a harmonisation of international privacy standards, noting that the existing situation without global standards left consumers largely unprotected — but that it also harmed economic progress.

Fleischer advocated the adoption of the rules agreed by APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 2004. While the head of the EU's "Article 29" working group of data protection commissioners, Germany's Peter Schaar, welcomed Google's initiative, some scepticism is perhaps in place. One of Australia's leading experts on data protection, Graham Greenleaf from the University of New South Wales, expressed great caution at the time the APEC proposals were discussed and passed. And the summary of the standard given on the APEC website looks rather simplistic.

Of course buzz words like "global standards" sound attractive, but ultimately the quality of that standard is decisive. How do they compare against what many so far regard as the "gold standard" in privacy protection, the EU directive of 1995? If someone knows the source of a comparative analysis of the two, I'd be grateful for a hint! Until then, I reserve my judgement on the merit of this initiative.

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At 17/9/07 18:32, Anonymous Ralf Bendrath said...

The majhor difference between the APEC and the EU privacy standards is that the APEC standard only allows individuals to sue the comanies abusing their data if they can prove that they had suffered (financial) harm because of it. This is a very high hurdle, and in my opinion not adequate for protecting an accepted human right. EPIC has already raised this point.

At 13/11/07 23:05, Anonymous Paul said...

maybe the question should be not what amount of privacy we should be giving up, but what kind of technologies should be given up to ensure provacy. The UK Government is running a research blog on the very questions you raise.



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