Dear Google: Even If There Is No Harm, You Fouled Up on Privacy

The controversy over Google’s collection of personal data via its Street View photo-taking program continues to grow, but the company appears reluctant to acknowledge the full importance of the lapse, saying no harm was done. Although co-founder Sergey Brin has admitted Google “screwed up,” CEO Eric Schmidt said at the Zeitgeist conference in the UK that no one was harmed by the incident, and as such, “No harm, no foul.” Others, however, clearly disagree. The company is facing a class-action lawsuit in Washington and Oregon, two legislators in Washington, D.C. in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission have raised the issue of whether Google’s behavior was illegal, a consumer advocacy group has also complained to the FTC and Germany has begun a criminal investigation.

Google recently admitted that its Street View cars had been collecting data from public Wi-Fi networks — then later admitted that, contrary to its initial statements, such data may have included personal information such as the content of emails and other communications. It also said the data was collected accidentally, and that none of it was ever released or used by anyone. Google has since stopped collecting data from Wi-Fi networks, and says it’s consulting with government and policy groups on the best way to get rid of the information so that users and consumer groups will be satisfied it does so properly.

That said, however, the company maintains that the issue was a simple oversight, and nothing worth getting concerned about. And this isn’t the first time Google has played down complaints about its behavior on privacy. After Buzz was launched and a number of users criticized the company for connecting them with all their email contacts whether they wanted to be connected or not — subsequently publicizing those connections without making it clear they would be public — Google CEO Eric Schmidt told attendees of one conference that the issue was blown out of proportion, that there was no harm caused and that the situation was primarily a result of users misunderstanding the service.

Yet the criticisms aimed at Google have continued. Privacy authorities from 10 countries, led by the Canadian Privacy Commissioner, sent a strongly worded letter to the company last month about its privacy practices. The group said that Google too often had “failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations when launching new services,” and that it needed to build privacy safeguards and controls directly into new products as they were being designed, rather than trying to apply them later.

In addition to the letter from the two U.S. legislators about the Street View data collection, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has sent a letter to the FTC asking it to investigate Google’s practices. The group also launched a site called Inside Google to call attention to what it believes are the company’s failings in various areas, including privacy. As the growing furor over Facebook and its approach to privacy has shown, there is mounting concern about social networks and web companies, what kinds of data they’re collecting and how they’re using it. And yet, like a drunk driver who maintains he did no harm because no one was hurt, Google continues to downplay the importance of what was a serious breach of personal privacy.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Blyzz

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com

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