Google Is Ginormous: Why You Should Care

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No Stranger to Privacy Flubs

Google is in a familiar privacy pickle here. Just last February privacy advocates blasted Google when it launched its Google Buzz social network for exposing Gmail contacts when users opted into the service.

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Google cofounder Sergey Brin acknowledged mistakes were made when the Google Buzz social network was launched. "We screwed up, and I'm not making excuses about it," he said at the company's developers conference in May.

Before that, Google apologized when it was discovered that Google could see what you type in the Chrome browser's Omnibox address/search bar and record it, along with your IP address, before you even hit the Enter key. The list of high-profile Google privacy flubs is extensive, going back even before 2004 and a privacy uproar over Desktop Search.

Google's missteps are a growing concern among privacy experts. In April ten privacy commissioners from countries including Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom sent a complaint letter to Google expressing concern regarding the company's privacy practices. They stated that Google "willfully" disregards privacy laws in many countries when rolling out new products (specifically Google Buzz).

Abetting Big Brother

While part of Google's corporate philosophy is "do no evil," practicing what it preaches becomes increasingly hard as the Internet behemoth balloons in size and ambition, says Jeff Finkelstein, an independent privacy consultant. He says as more people migrate to Google's services (such as Google Voice, Google Health, and mobile services), the more they are fighting a losing privacy battle.

Dedicated Googlers with a Google Buzz account, a Nexus One phone, and a netbook have given Google sufficient digital inroads to identify the users' identities, what they had for lunch, and their weekend plans.

The problem is that it's not always the intentional privacy breach that affects people, it's the unintentional ones--as Google's track record reveals. And sometimes what Google might share about you is out of Google's control. Google says it received 10,000 requests for user data from government agencies in the six months ending December 31, 2009.

You Can't Quit Facebook, But Can You Ditch Google?

By comparison with Facebook's 400 million users, Google has 178 million Gmail users, according to ComScore. That doesn't include the millions more that use Google's everyday services such as Google Maps or Google Search. Unlike Facebook, which was recently blasted over sharing scraps of personal data with advertisers, Google is an advertising powerhouse. It owns DoubleClick, one of the biggest online advertisers.

I believe Google is protecting my identity when it says it uses nonpersonally identifiable information when targeting ads to me and never tries to identify me by name. I commend Google for offering an easy-to-understand Privacy Dashboard, allowing us to easily view all our privacy settings related to Google. It's also refreshing to know Google "anonymizes" its server logs, deleting cookies and users' IP addresses every 18 months. But in the end, if Google has amassed a digital library of all the things I do online that touch Google, they might as well have my name.

Google is on the way to turning the Web into its own computing platform that rivals Microsoft Windows. But if it wants to avoid the backlash Microsoft received when it was perceived as too big, Google is advised to avoid missteps that brand it with the label "Big Brother."

PCWorld contributor Daniel Ionescu helped with the report.

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