When it comes to protecting the privacy of its users, Google ranks worse than any other Internet company, according to an interim report by Privacy International. The international watchdog group also accused Google of engaging in a smear campaign in response to its findings and demanded an apology.
Privacy International's findings, based on six months of research, placed Google at the bottom of 23 Internet companies examined by the group. Google was the only company to earn the bottom ranking for "comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy."
Other companies, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, rated slightly better that Google. Microsoft was given a rating of four out of six for "serious lapses in privacy practices." Yahoo was given a ranking of five of six, one better than Google, for "substantial and comprehensive privacy threats."
"We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research, we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google's approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations," Privacy International said.
In particular, the group cited the large amount of data that Google collects about its users and lack of privacy controls. "Google's increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user's life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook," Privacy International said. "Neither of these elements has been demonstrated."
Privacy International plans to issue a final report in September. Google executives were not immediately available to comment on the report's findings.
But an open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt from Privacy International Director Simon Davies accused the company of engaging in a smear campaign in response to the group's findings. "Two European journalists have independently told us that Google representatives have contacted them with the claim that 'Privacy International has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft.' I presume this was motivated because Microsoft scored an overall better result than Google in the rankings," Davies wrote.
Google allegedly claimed a conflict of interest exist because one of 70 people on Privacy International's board of advisors is a current Microsoft employee. Davies rejected the charge and listed five critical actions the group has taken against Microsoft, including support for the European Commission's investigation into Microsoft.
"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 wrote, demanding an apology from Schmidt.
This isn't the first time that Privacy International has raised privacy concerns about Google. In 2004, the group filed a privacy complaint over Google's Gmail service with regulators in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Austria, Australia, and Canada, as well as with the European Commission.
To date, Google has rejected concerns over the information it gathers and stores about users. Speaking recently in South Korea, Schmidt dismissed privacy concerns over the data collected by the company, saying users worried about privacy can always choose not to use the company's services. He also said Google deletes information about users after a certain period of time but did not say how long that period is.
Privacy concerns about Google have also been raised over the company's acquisition of DoubleClick, sparking an investigation by the U.S. Fair Trade Commission (FTC). That investigation is ongoing.
While Google has taken flack from critics for its privacy policies, the company has acted to protect users in at least one case: In January 2006, Google was the only company to resist a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) subpoena for a random sampling of 1 million Web addresses that users searched for.
AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo did not fight the DOJ's request, which did not seek information that would have identified the users who made the search requests contained in the sample. Ultimately, Google shared a smaller amount of data with the DOJ.