You wouldn't let the inmates run the insane asylum. You wouldn't hire a fox to handle security at your henhouse. And it's probably not the best idea to hand America's Biggest Losers the keys to the Oreo cookie factory.
And yet on the InterWebs, the companies entrusted to keep our personal data safe are invariably the ones who have the most to gain from not doing so.
[ Meet the new cookie monster: Google has been secretly bypassing privacy settings on iPads and iPhones, via the Safari browser. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]
Today's meditation on this topic returns to Google, which has been accused of tricking users into thinking their privacy is protected when it really isn't. In this case, the accuser is Microsoft and the trickery involves privacy settings in Internet Explorer.
More specifically, it's about the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P), an effort started in the late 1990s to provide machine-readable privacy policies. The idea was you'd customize your browser privacy settings exactly as you wanted them, then IE or Netscape Navigator or Apple's Safari would automatically adjust how the websites you visited dealt with your data -- for example, whether to block cookies deposited by third-party ad networks.
Only nobody really used it. Or rather, like Google, they pretended to and moved on. Google's response, in part:
It is well known -- including by Microsoft -- that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft's request while providing modern web functionality. ... [N]ewer cookie-based features are broken by the Microsoft implementation in IE. These include things like Facebook "Like" buttons, the ability to sign-in to websites using your Google account, and hundreds more modern web services. It is well known that it is impractical to comply with Microsoft's request while providing this web functionality.
Yes, P3P has been in a persistent vegetative state since the mid-2000s. Yes, this is no secret within the industry; the New York Times' Riva Richmond reported on this well over a year ago. Yes, Microsoft is using this as an opportunity to kick Google in the pubic -- er, public arena.
Still, Google should know better than to leave itself open to yet another charge of blithely ignoring users' privacy preferences for its own monetary gain. The semi-hysterical tone of its responses to both the Safari cookie controversy and this one suggests that Google does know better, but Larry Page will be damned before he admits it.