Google is so annoyed with one of CNet’s reporters for raising uncomfortable questions about Google’s privacy policies that they are refusing to talk to any CNet reporters for one year.
The startling news of the blackballing is mentioned in a parenthetical note at the bottom of a benign article about Google’s search for a new Chef to cook in the company’s cafeteria, replacing former Grateful Dead chef Charlie Ayers:
Google could not be immediately reached for comment. (Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with CNET News.com reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story.)
That story by CNet reporter Elinor Mills summarized the myriad privacy problems that Google seems hell-bent on pretending aren’t there. At the time, I praised her article in this blog entry, and added my voice to the chorus of concerned privacy analysts, asking my favorite question: Why does Google still not have a Privacy Officer?
Elinor’s story focused on the privacy issues that arise from the huge amount of data about individuals which Google has amassed and makes available through careful searching. But she also pointed out that the data which is publicly available is only a fraction of that actually gathered internally by Google about your private searches, what ads you click on, what topics you might be discussing in email, and other fascinating tidbits from your life.
As she suggested, such a treasure trove of data could be an irresistible prize for hackers, “zealous government investigators, or even a Google insider who falls short of the company’s ethics[.]” For what it’s worth, I too have previously analyzed some of the gaping holes in Google’s privacy policies, and how one of Google’s executives unwittingly pointed out just how significant a risk their growing database presents.
To demonstrate how much personal information is publicly available via Google, Elinor dug up a few bits of slightly personal information about Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt — including his salary, his neighborhood, a few of his hobbies and some of his political donations — all obtained by searches using Google:
Google CEO Eric Schmidt doesn’t reveal much about himself on his home page. But spending 30 minutes on the Google search engine lets one discover that Schmidt, 50, was worth an estimated $1.5 billion last year. Earlier this year, he pulled in almost $90 million from sales of Google stock and made at least another $50 million selling shares in the past two months as the stock leaped to more than $300 a share. He and his wife Wendy live in the affluent town of Atherton, Calif., where, at a $10,000-a-plate political fund-raiser five years ago, presidential candidate Al Gore and his wife Tipper danced as Elton John belted out “Bennie and the Jets.” Schmidt has also roamed the desert at the Burning Man art festival in Nevada, and is an avid amateur pilot.
A fairly benign list of details, but apparently enough to send the infants running Google’s PR shop into a full-fledged kindergarten tantrum. But instead of scapegoating the messenger, shouldn’t Google be punishing itself? As one commenter on Dave Farber’s IP List noted:
If digging into someone’s relatively public activities is worth starting a fight, why is the Google CEO running a company that makes it so easy for so many to spy on so many? Shouldn’t he resign if he feels that searching through Google’s index is so evil?
Indeed, it was Google’s CEO who defends privacy claims with the lame-ass excuse, “The company’s founding motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil’.” When Schmidt dropped that stinker at an analyst meeting last May, I blogged an explanation of the difference between “don’t be evil” and “be good.”
I know Elinor and many of the other great reporters at CNet, and I know that they’ll get their stories whether Google’s PR department deigns to return a call. And I have no doubt that Google’s hissy-fit will serve only to embarrass which ever of the company’s young and inexperienced public relations staffers issued the silly decree.
But this situation certainly doesn’t reflect well on the way Google, still very much the apple of Wall Street’s eye, can be expected to handle adversity. Meanwhile, Google’s “La-la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you!” strategy on privacy issues isn’t going to solve them any problems either.
I’m sorry to say, but I remain convinced that Google is a privacy train-wreck waiting to happen. And when it does, it won’t be pretty — a fact to which this latest stunt attests.
Update: Good Morning Silicon Valley covered the issue and there are some really interesting trackbacks that give some different perspectives on this story. One dissenting view is from Jason Shellen, a member of the Blogger team at Google. Jason takes offense at the information about Eric Schmidt that was reported in the CNet article. His concerns were echoed by Jeremy Zawodny’s similarly themed blog entry. (I too joined the comment chorus on Jeremy’s blog). But I agree with Dan Gillmor’s take on the question whether printing such vague information about Schmidt was a problem. The New York Times has discovered the story now too.