An Internet privacy watchdog has blasted Google chief executive Eric Schmidt for his comments on Internet privacy, saying his remarks suggest Google misunderstands basic lessons about why privacy is important.
Lest anything be taken out of context, here's the full quote from Schmidt, uttered in an interview with CNBC:
"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it's important, for example that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation was not pleased with those remarks, saying that "from protection against shallow embarrassments to the preservation of freedom and human rights," privacy is about more than just hiding wrongdoing. Schmidt's comments, the EFF says, make it seems as though Google doesn't understand that concept.
As Techdirt noted, Schmidt's comments ring familiar with the philosophy that if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from prying eyes (call it a new spin on "don't be evil").
The problem with that mentality is that even if you're not breaking the law, violations of privacy can be embarrassing or unnerving. EFF's response quotes EFF fellow and BoingBoing editor Cory Doctorow, who in a talk to the American Library Association noted the difference between privacy and a secret. "Every one of us has parents who did at least one private thing that's not a secret, otherwise we wouldn't be here," he said.
At this point, the debate gets kind of abstract. What exactly are we talking about here? It's not a revelation that Google complies with legal investigations, and a judge recently ruled that authorities can rifle though a suspect's Gmail account without telling that person about it. The first half of Schmidt's comments about privacy are brash and misguided, but ultimately he's speaking the truth about what happens to your data.
The issue of Internet privacy is too widespread to direct solely at Google (though this is not the first such complaint about Google.) Last week, blogger Christopher Soghoian learned that authorities requested customer whereabouts from Sprint 8 million times in a year, and that the company can track URL history on some phones and gives that information to marketers. Verizon and Yahoo resisted giving Soghoian similar information, for fear of the response from customers.
If all of this disturbs you, you can support the EFF and declare that the use of Internet data has gone too far. But sometimes it's more tempting to just give up.