Google And Facebook Better Get Privacy Protection Right

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?

7 comments about "Google And Facebook Better Get Privacy Protection Right".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. David Bowman from Travel Spike, May 20, 2010 at 4:08 p.m.

    If most people knew what Google, Facebook, and other companies collected and distributed on their personal data; they would be shocked and pissed off. It is only a matter of time.

  2. Ed Borasky, May 20, 2010 at 4:17 p.m.

    1. There's a big difference between Google and Facebook here. One of Google's *founders*, Sergey Brin, publicly acknowledged that Google screwed up. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, continues to say that Facebook's evolution is merely reflecting the desire of its members for less privacy.

    2. Neither Google nor Facebook can practically meet the strict privacy restrictions imposed in Europe, and may not in fact be able to even meet the looser ones in the USA. There's a massive amount of re-engineering involved in some very complex technologies. So the issue is going to boil down to *priorities* - safeguarding *financial* data, dealing with the impending exhaustion of IPV4 addresses and protecting the Internet infrastructure from malicious people, rather than "privacy".

  3. Ari Rosenberg from Performance Pricing Holdings, LLC, May 20, 2010 at 4:26 p.m.

    the tide is turning Dave - this issue of privacy has been discarded in dot com hallways for way to long and Facebook will likely bare the brunt of this crashing wave -- as always, your ability to get to the point is appreciated. But I also wonder how you manage to point this finger while not disclosing your experience regarding consumer privacy and how you handled the issue via Behavioral targeting. Can you illuminate on this further -- how was consumer privacy handled at Tacoda (and other like minded companies)? What did you do right? And what did you do back then that you may now regret regarding this specific issue?



  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 20, 2010 at 5:28 p.m.

    I think I would like to see you in the White House and I had the credentials to have you as my boss. Meanwhile, this is an excellent opportunity to send the following message:

    The past few days Comcast clicker service has been wonky. Earlier today, the television was on the NBC channel. Automatically, it changed to a fire and brimstone (literally) religious crap station and could not be altered via the clicker or manually via the box. Comcast has complete control over what you can watch, although this was the first time I experienced their muscle. This is not specifically, at this point, about christian religious indoctrination. It proves there is a big brother company with internal control to influence (like any media message) opinion and dissent. Privacy must be protected and Comcast needs to be regulated without the ability to absorb NBCU or any other "network". Please note, too, that Comcast said the default channel was the one the religious spew channel. A default channel can be a white channel with the message of such. The selling out to the highest bidder says that the garbage on their now is reaping huge sums from their sheepish audience (perhaps fraudulently) and that they could sell that signal to another perpetrator with even worse intentions. Otherwise, we will pay a price that will never be returned.

  5. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, May 20, 2010 at 6:36 p.m.

    Ari-thanks for your comments. At TACODA, we were very, very far from perfect. However, we did try to make privacy a central and primary issue in our business and we did everything possible to not only give users as much notice and choice about data we were capturing, but we also did everything possible to never even touch personal data. I personally believe that most of the value that can be delivered to users through data can be delivered without capturing or using personal data. Maybe anonymous data is a little less effective for delivering the most relevant marketing, but the value of using anonymous data and avoiding personal data puts companies in much better positions when it comes to respecting their users and their privacy.

  6. Jeffrey Chester from CDD, May 21, 2010 at 11:56 a.m.

    Dave: I urge you to call on the IAB and other industry leaders to support federal privacy legislation and a stronger role for the FTC. The latest--and appears never-ending!--revelations from Facebook, Google and others are not unique. They represent longstanding practices that places privacy last. The industry is in danger of having its reputation further damaged, as well as becoming the subject of government and private litigation around the world. It's time now for leaders such as yourself--on the IAB exec. committee, for example--to speak out in favor of federal legislation. Consumer and privacy groups will work with those that want to bring positive change to the issue.

  7. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, May 23, 2010 at 9:42 a.m.

    Jeff, thanks for your post. I personally do not believe that new privacy legislation is the answer. Rather, I agree with FTC chairman Jon Liebowitz that we need tough, unrestrained self-regulation from the industry. The IAB and virtually all of the major trade organizations related to digital marketing are working very hard to make that a reality.

Next story loading loading..