This has not been a good week for building trust between Internet companies and public policymakers around the world. Both Google and Facebook are confronting crises around privacy that, if not handled properly -- and handled quickly -- could have devastating long-term impacts on how governments around the world regulate Internet companies.
First, late last week and in response to requests from European regulators, Google admitted that it has been using its roving Google StreetView vehicles to capture web browsing data from all unsecured WiFi routers in homes and offices along their routes. Not only was this personal data captured without anyone's permission, but it was captured without Google providing any notice or prior disclosures of what it was up to. Apparently, Google and its contractors have been doing this for years all over the world.
Second, scrutiny of Facebook's brazen approach to making personal data on its social network public -- and its Byzantine policies and controls governing which data are public and which are private -- is reaching a real crescendo. Apparently, Facebook's approach is the product of CEO Mark Zuckerberg's very personal belief that people should significantly reduce their expectations of protecting privacy in their online activities. This approach is now being aggressively challenged by the press, by others in our industry and by many of Facebook's own employees.
This is serious stuff. Sometimes, even relatively modest public policy problems can gather momentum and take on a life of their own. Sure, this isn't going to become Watergate or Whitewater/Lewinsky, but Microsoft's poor early handling of antitrust challenges likely caused that issue to become much bigger, more expansive and certainly much more expensive than it ever needed to be. Neither Google nor Facebook is seeking my advice in this area, but here it is anyway:
Take privacy protection more seriously. Privacy protection is shaping up to be one of the most important issue that Internet companies will face over the next five years as their businesses become mainstream. For many under the age of 35 -- much of the senior management at these companies -- privacy and its protection are a low priority, and privacy complaints are seen as annoyances. Unfortunately for those execs and their companies, billions of people around the world are not under 35, including most senior regulators and public policymakers. You need to give all of your consumer clearer notice and real choice when it comes to what you do with their private information.
It's about human dignity. To most people, the ability to keep their private lives private is not a matter of "policy" or relieved only by a march through endless tasks under your privacy settings, it is matter of human dignity. It is not something that is granted to them by companies with which they interact. Don't get hung up on the fact that much of what you do is technically legal. To most people, it is very creepy! That is all that matters. Your logical "trade-off for being online" excuses fall on deaf ears. Legislators and regulators listen to their constituents.
Hire more liberal arts grads with B and C averages. Great software engineers are brilliant at reducing even the most complex concepts into binary languages built entirely of 1s and 0s. They can reduce everything to either black or white. Unfortunately, most of life is about the grey space in between: history, humanity, emotions, irrationality, justice. Now those Internet-borne engineers are piloting companies that impact many hundreds of millions of people in fundamental ways every day. They need to infuse their organizations with people who can help them navigate those grey areas. They need people who spent their college years understanding people and how they think. They need more pragmatists. They need more people who will challenge them when they do stupid things. Hundreds of Google employees and contractors must have known about their decision to capture all of that wireless data. Where was the B- political science major from Penn State with a more humanist view of the world, who should have complained about it until they stopped it?
What do you think?