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Viacom and Google: Stealing Your Privacy
By: Bruce Coker
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    2008-07-23

    Table of Contents:
  • Viacom and Google: Stealing Your Privacy
  • Useless information
  • Hostile to privacy?
  • Don't be evil

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    Viacom and Google: Stealing Your Privacy - Hostile to privacy?


    (Page 3 of 4 )

    It is tempting, given Viacom's belligerence, to paint Google as the victimized good guys in all this. It is true that Google appears to have complied with its obligations under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to remove copyrighted material when this is brought to its attention. It is also true that Google's lawyers are seeking means by which they can avoid handing over personally identifying information, possibly by scrubbing the log data before delivery.

    The same lawyers have also attempted to obtain reassurances that limits will be placed on the uses to which the data may be put. Catherine Lacavera, senior Google litigation counsel, said the company would "ask Viacom to respect users' privacy and allow us to anonymize the logs before producing them under the court's order."

    However, other aspects of Google's behavior have raised privacy concerns of their own. Firstly, it has to be asked why the company has felt it necessary to gather and retain countless millions of log records about its YouTube visitors in the first place. If it had discarded or destroyed this information, as perhaps it should have, the data would no longer be available for Viacom to demand.

    And this is just the tip of the iceberg. The amount of data Google collects about Internet users just about defies belief. Anybody who uses its mail or calendar services should be aware that copies of all their appointments and emails will be recorded and stored indefinitely. This is true even after they've been "deleted," since Google apparently has no data retention policy. Google's own Gmail privacy policy makes it clear that "Residual copies of deleted messages and accounts may... remain in our offline backup systems."

    And it doesn't stop there. Google retains records of every string entered into its search engine, alongside data that could be used to identify the searcher. The US government has already attempted to force Google to hand over samples of this data, and although that request was declined in court there is a likelihood of further successful attempts in the future. This is especially likely in the light of Judge Stanton's judgment, which could open the floodgates to requests for personally identifying data.

    Such are the concerns over Google's strategies that a 2007 report by Human Rights watchdog Privacy International rated it as "hostile" to privacy, ranking its record the worst of 20 of the biggest Internet companies. In this report, Google's record ranked  behind those of competitors such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL.

    In some ways it's unfair to single out Google for these criticisms, since other search engines such as Yahoo and MSN operate with similar policies and behavior. Yahoo in particular have been widely criticized for listing advertising links to adware and spyware, which its clients have foisted on oblivious surfers in the guise of security utilities and browser add-ons. However, the sheer scale of Google and its high-profile place in the consciousness of the web community exposes it to a degree of scrutiny and concern unparalleled in the admittedly short history of the Internet.

    With a search engine market share of around 70 percent in the United States and a web index running to billions of pages, Google exercises an almost-monopolistic dominance that, were its core end-user services not provided free of charge, would have probably attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission by now. This in turn makes it an easy target for wider concerns about Internet privacy. These concerns have been simmering for a while, and are now beginning to surface with the growing realization that using the Internet, contrary to the traditional perception of anonymity, is one of the most traceable activities that it is possible to undertake.

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