Privacy group accuses Google of smear campaign

Just one day after slamming Google with the worst privacy ranking among top Internet companies, London-based Privacy International (PI) has publicly accused the search behemoth of attempting to undermine the non-profit's report, saying Google suggested to the media that PI has a "conflict of interest regarding Microsoft."

Google questioned integrity of recent privacy report by suggesting "conflict of interest regarding Microsoft," non-profit says

Privacy group accuses Google of smear campaign
Just one day after slamming Google with the worst privacy ranking among top Internet companies, London-based Privacy International (PI) has publicly accused the search behemoth of attempting to undermine the non-profit's report, saying Google suggested to the media that PI has a "conflict of interest regarding Microsoft."

Meanwhile, Google has lashed back at PI's report, released Saturday, saying in a statement that it the company "aggressively protects its users' privacy and stands behind its track record," according to reports.

"We are disappointed with Privacy International's report, which is based on numerous inaccuracies and misunderstandings about our services," said Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel.

In " A Race to the Bottom: Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies," PI ranks the privacy practices of 23 of "the best and the worst performers both in Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 across the full spectrum of search, e-mail, e-commerce and social networking sites, including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, Wikipedia, Yahoo, YouTube, and Google.

Overall, Google scored the absolute lowest, deemed "Hostile to Privacy" for its "track history of ignoring privacy concerns. Every corporate announcement involves some new practice involving surveillance."

Among the reasons for the low ranking, PI says that:

  • Google account holders that regularly use even a few of Google's services must accept that the company retains a large quantity of information about that user, often for an unstated or indefinite length of time, without clear limitation on subsequent use or disclosure, and without an opportunity to delete or withdraw personal data even if the user wishes to terminate the service.
  • Google maintains records of all search strings and the associated IP-addresses and time stamps for at least 18 to 24 months and does not provide users with an expungement option.
  • Google has access to additional personal information, including hobbies, employment, address, and phone number, contained within user profiles in Orkut.
  • Google collects all search results entered through Google Toolbar and identifies all Google Toolbar users with a unique cookie that allows Google to track the user's web movement.
  • Google fails to follow generally accepted privacy practices such as the OECD Privacy Guidelines and elements of EU data protection law.
  • Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.

"Sour grapes?"

After releasing the report yesterday, PI today published on its Web site an open letter from PI director Simon Davies to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In it, Davies accuses the company of calling into question the integrity of the group's findings, saying that Google "representative or representatives" contacted journalists about the study before it was released and "made particular reference to one member of our 70-member international Advisory Board. This man is a current employee of Microsoft."

While Davies doesn't deny that, indeed, one of PI's advisory board members is a Microsoft employee, he stresses that the member "joined our Advisory Board well before he was headhunted by Microsoft" and that "he is a decent, skilled and honorable man who upon his appointment with Microsoft offered us his resignation. We refused to accept it, and he continues to serve on the Board in a private capacity."

Further, Davies vehemently defends the group's independence and integrity, noting that it has campaigned against many company's over privacy, including Microsoft: "[We] publicly supported the EU Commission investigation into Microsoft, that we nominated Microsoft for the US Big Brother Award in 2003, that we awarded Microsoft the "Worst Corporate Invader" award at the 1999 US Big Brother Awards, [and] that we publicly accused Microsoft of subverting its software security ... ."

PI points out that while Microsoft did earn a rating of "Serious Lapses" -- two ranks better than Google, Windows Live Space was deemed a "Substantial Threat." Meanwhile Google's Orkut was not tagged with the worst rating as Google was; rather, it also received "Substantial Threat" status.

"Can I be so bold as to suggest that your company's actions stem from sour grapes that you achieved the lowest ranking amongst the Internet giants?" Davies writes. "We have no specific axe to grind with Google. It is one of many companies demonstrating a poor privacy performance, and in assessing that performance we are acting solely with the intention of raising public awareness."

He goes on to write, "I believe an apology from you is in order, but if you cannot deliver this then I think you should reflect carefully on the actions of your representatives before embarking on what I believe amounts to a smear campaign."

Privacy International's report can be downloaded here [PDF].

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