The news last week that Italian authorities have convicted three Google executives with criminal privacy violations got my attention for two reasons. One, the charges are based on a video that shows an autistic boy being bullied, a video that Google did not create or post. It was filmed by cell cameras and posted more than three years ago, and indeed one of the executives has since retired from Google. Two, none of the three live or work in Italy, and a fourth executive – a product manager – was acquitted. We truly live in a global village, and one in which the legal operations move slower and slower. As someone who was bullied as a child, I get this, although not sure that justice really was served here.
This case comes on top of the company’s missteps with Buzz, where it had to alter the default privacy settings after a rather embarrassing launch and lots of fanfare.
Has Google become more evil, or is it just the contentious times we live in that makes this sad state of affairs possible? One thing is clear, though: Google is becoming bigger and buying more and more companies that have products or services that I use. Picnik (online photo editing) and Etherpad (online real time document collaboration) are just two of the more recent acquisitions. The Etherpad acquisition was also a bit troubling, where the company had first announced they were turning off the service, then had to restore it after numerous complaints.
I still think the vast majority of people at Google adhere to the company’s ten founding principles, which is more than I can say for my dealings with Microsoft over the years. Certainly both companies are hyper-competitive. But the very nature and pervasiveness of Google’s online services makes it more pernicious, and has a greater potential for abuse, as the recent news indicates. But it also means that they can turn more quickly when they make a mistake: the Etherpad issue was resolved in a day or so. Imagine Microsoft trying to do that. Indeed, try finding something similar to this document on Microsoft’s Web site: you will find a lot of corporate doublespeak, rather than the plain spoken “Ten Things” that Google professes.
While all this was going down in Italy, I was reviewing what information Google has stored on me in Google Accounts. If you haven’t had a look at your “dashboard” lately, it is instructive to see exactly what Google can track on you. In my case, I use a ton of different Google products, and recorded for posterity include the following:
- My most posts to my Blogger blogs
- What items Google Alerts has located that mention my keywords
- The three people I most often email in my contact list
- The most recent Google Doc that I have edited and how many of them have been supposedly “trashed” but are still accessible
- My complete Google Chat history of more than 1500 conversations
- The photos stored in Picasa, fans and favorites included
- My history of calls made on my Google Voice account
- My most recent Web browsing history, including search terms, images downloaded, maps visited and news items read
- And there are 12 other Google products that aren’t yet tracked, including AdSense, Knol, and Groups too.
You get the picture: there is a lot you can learn about me when you scroll through all this data, and a lot that I would prefer remain private. All it takes is someone to guess a single password, too. That is scary, and I hope that “do no evil” thing is still very much in force in the years to come.