The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

(Up-front disclaimer: I would feel compelled to mock this drivel no matter who my current employer happened to be.)

An editorial writer at the Mercury News gives helpful advice to Google's founders:

Memo to the good Google guys: Privacy would be a great move

By Miguel Helft

Dear Larry and Sergey:

You've staked so much of your reputation on being good guys that the privacy flap over Google's new e-mail service must have hit home hard.

Your creative idea for Gmail -- displaying ads based on the text of incoming e-mail messages -- is a little creepy. It means computers will ``read'' e-mails sent to Gmail users by their friends and family, their bosses, doctors or priests.

Their priests? Is Helft trying to imply that our priests are going to email us the juicy details of the sins we confessed to them? I know that the clergy is probably more computer literate than when I was a Catholic schoolkid a quarter century ago, but I rather doubt the veracity of this scenario:

"I absolve you of your sins. Please give me your email address and I will send you email later today that summarizes what you have confessed to me. Your reply should contain five Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys."

Anyway. Computers already ``read'' e-mails under the auspices of virus checkers and spam filters. If Helft thinks that's creepy, well, I hope he needs to buy a lot of Cialis.

Things have calmed down. You seem to have averted legislation in California that would have grounded Gmail (the revised bill is far more benign). This is the perfect time to show the world that you really are good guys.

Just like your promise that Google would set new standards for corporate governance and public stock offerings, why not commit to set a new standard for Internet privacy?

Here's how to start: Publicly declare that the decade-long experiment with self-regulation in online privacy has been a failure. Announce that Google will part ways with other Internet companies, which have consistently opposed privacy regulations, and begin lobbying for a pro-privacy legislative agenda. To give your efforts credibility, team up with sensible advocacy groups and enlightened lawmakers.

So, Google will show its righteousness by abandoning voluntary action and using the government to force other people to act according to its whim? What universe does Helft live in where "lobbyist" is not synonymous with "scum"?

The first piece of legislation you could promote should be aimed at protecting data that is stored online.

When Americans keep letters, financial documents, photographs and other personal items in their homes, those items are well protected -- without a court-ordered search warrant, the government has no access to them.

Increasingly, however, we are storing a myriad of personal documents online. Gmail's offer of 1 gigabyte of free storage takes a bold step toward advancing that trend. A Gmail in-box could quickly become a digital record of our lives, replete with photographs, bank statements, travel itineraries, orders for prescription medications and other personal information.

Once that data is stored on Google's servers, the government or a private party -- say, a record label hunting down music pirates -- could get to it without much effort. All they would need is a subpoena. To make matters worse, you'd be under no obligation to alert your customers that someone was snooping on them.

This is not just a Google problem. Any Web-based e-mail, tax or photo storage service has the same pitfalls. But with 1 gigabyte of free storage, you are providing a big incentive for people to move their most personal information online.

Does Helft own a computer? This is like Dr. Evil waking up after thirty years in deep freeze and demanding that the United Nations give him TEN MILLION DOLLARS!

Gmail users need a computer to access the service, and computers these days come with tens of gigabytes of storage. Soon it will be hundreds of gigabytes.

There are plenty of other ways for Google to advance the cause of online privacy. It could draft a privacy policy that is the model for the industry. It could promise never to reduce privacy protections without customers' explicit consent. It could also set an industry-wide example by offering to encrypt stored e-mails, or push for a federal law that bans all spam. And it could work on legislation to align America's data protection guidelines with those of the European Union, which are far stricter.


Well, yes, Google could encrypt emails stored in the Gmail system. But if Google didn't know the key, then it would not be able to search through those emails, which is the whole point of Gmail. Didn't Helft read the press releases? And if Google did know the key, then they would be able to produce data when commanded to do so by a court, which would put us right back where we started.

And it's a nice feelgood statement to say that Google should "push for a federal law that bans all spam." But spam is not just the scummy ads for porn and hardon drugs and cheap software. Political candidates send mass email. Companies send email when consumers sign up for free software or some related service, and sometimes the consumers find the information useful. There was a guy who was fired by Intel, and sent email to thousands of people at the company. How would Google look if they advocated shutting him up?

(I say this as someone who gets over 100 spam emails a day. It's too bad I'm more pro-free-expression than someone who works in the newspaper business.)

Let's say that we do ask the government to crack down on those who violate privacy for profit. What say we target those who publish inconvenient facts about people in exchange for cold cash -- and for eyeballs for their advertisers?

For the last two weeks when I have visited the Mercury News' opinion page, the top article has excoriated a San Jose councilman:


Councilman appears to have violated ethics laws

A Mercury News editorial page investigation reveals that council member Terry Gregory appears to have violated numerous state and local ethics laws, possibly including soliciting a bribe. And if he hasn't violated the letter of the law, he has made a mockery of the spirit of ethics regulations.

I assume that Gregory would prefer his previous obscurity to the Mercury News' trumpeting his name in connection with a scandal.

Or take Laci Peterson, who is not even a public figure like Gregory, but a murder victim. For several weeks after her body was found, the Merc ran a picture of her holding a glass of red wine, to caption a series of articles about the murder case.

Did Laci Peterson consent to have that picture displayed in front of hundreds of thousands of people?

My point is not that the Mercury News should not investigate shady councilmen or write articles about murder cases. But it's ridiculous for the Merc to dig up information on citizens while producing news, and then to turn around and say that all other uses of private data for profit are horribly tainted. Everyone must be equal under the law, but that is not a concept that any Mercury News editorial writer seems to comprehend.



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