By Paul Harris: Britain’s privacy watchdog has joined senior government officials from nine other countries to push Google (NSDQ: GOOG) to adopt stricter privacy controls.
Christopher Graham, the UK’s information commissioner, has joined countries including Germany, Canada and Spain in signing a letter challenging Google to protect its users more.
The letter, addressed to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, claimed the concerns of citizens across the world were “being forgotten” as Google introduces more and more products.
It followed problems with Google Buzz, a social networking application that triggered a storm of protest when it was launched and automatically connected people via their email accounts. Google was forced to quickly change Google Buzz to allow users more choice in who would be in their networks.
“It is unacceptable to roll out a product that unilaterally renders personal information public, with the intention of repairing problems later as they arise,” the joint letter said. It added: “We call on you … to incorporate fundamental privacy principles directly into the design of your new services.”
The letter then listed six areas where Google should strive to do better, including only collecting the minimum amount of personal information on users of its services, telling users how that information will be used and making it easy for people to delete their accounts and protect their private data. The letter reflects growing fears in some quarters about the power of Google.
The search engine has a self-declared mission to make all information in the world searchable but that has run up against numerous privacy or copyright issues. Its Google Books project to put the world’s books online has outraged many in the publishing industry. Its Google Street View project also caused negative headlines by capturing images of people in public as Google cars roam the streets and then put the resulting images up on the web.
In an official response a Google spokeswoman said the firm was already very sensitive to the privacy issue and vigilant over the concerns of its products’ users. “We try very hard to be upfront about the data we collect and how we use it,” she said. The spokeswoman added that the company would not be responding to the letter. “We have discussed all these issues publicly many times before and have nothing to add to today’s letter,” she said.
Google insiders suggested that, in fact, the company complies with the suggestions contained in the letter and that it had been an unnecessary attack. But the issue is clearly a highly sensitive one for a company whose unofficial corporate motto is “don’t be evil” but is now getting increasingly bad press about privacy and its global ambitions and dominance of the internet.
In the US yesterday, Google released comments it had made to the Federal Trade Commission about privacy concerns. The firm said it would support self-regulatory standards and even a federal privacy law that would establish “baseline privacy protections”.
This article originally appeared in Â© Guardian News & Media Ltd..