Blog Post

The G1’s Privacy Problem

imageLong-running concerns about privacy and mobile phones are finding a new outlet: Google (NSDQ: GOOG). USA Today has a long piece about the G1 that argues that Google is a particular threat because of its size. But I don’t follow this: If the information can’t be linked to an individual there’s not much threat to privacy, and if it can be linked to an individual, it doesn’t matter how “big” the company is — the threat to the individual is the same.

The G1 requires the user to register with Google and receive a personal identification number, which will be linked to his/her web searches, contact lists, IMs, e-mails, personal calendar, social networks, videos, photos and so on, plus any mobile specific information. Notes USA Today: “On the downside, once you fire up the G1, you’re on Google’s radar — whether you like it or not.” But if someone was worried about Google collecting information why would they get a G1 handset? By now everyone should be well-aware that Google collects a lot of information in order to serve up relevant ads, and there’s plenty of other handsets to buy if that worries them.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., former chairman of the powerful House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, wants web companies held to the same standard as phone and cable TV companies, by giving consumers an “opt-in” choice for deciding whether their personal data can be used for commercial purposes. He also thinks that “an individual should have the right to see the data a company has amassed on him or her and be able to have that record expunged.” He adds a company should not be allowed to deny a service — say, mobile search — just because a consumer doesn’t want personal data collected.

I agree with a lot of this, but if a company offers a service for free based on the idea that it can serve up relevant ads, should it be forced to break that business model? If Google were to deny someone the ability to do a Google search on a mobile phone there are plenty of other companies willing to offer the search, starting with the carrier and moving on to the browser supplier, and of course, Yahoo… so is that denying the service? There does need to be regulation to protect privacy, but it has to find a happy medium between protecting privacy and letting entities actually interact, and it should be general — not an anti-Google bill.

Photo Credit: Edlimagno