Privacy Watchdog Tags Google Worst on Web

A London-based privacy advocacy group, Privacy International, has ranked the world’s No. 1 search engine company worse in protecting customer privacy than any of nearly two dozen other major Internet-based companies.

“Throughout our research, we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google’s approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations,” Privacy International says in its scathing report, “A Race to the Bottom – Privacy Ranking of Internet Service Companies.”

“While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy,” the report notes. “This is in part due to the diversity and specificity of Google’s product range and the ability of the company to share extracted data between these tools, and in part it is due to Google’s market dominance and the sheer size of its user base. Google’s status in the ranking is also due to its aggressive use of invasive or potentially invasive technologies and techniques.”

The problem, Privacy International says, goes beyond simply tracking user data and delivering targeted ads. “We have witnessed an attitude to privacy within Google that at its most blatant is hostile, and at its most benign is ambivalent,” the report explains.

Why Not Microsoft?

The report breaks out a specific section just to explain why Microsoft didn’t get the lowest ranking along with Google.

“The true difference between Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. can be defined not so much by the data practices and privacy policies that exist between the two organizations, but by the corporate ethos and leadership exhibited by each,” Privacy International reports.

“Five years ago Microsoft could reasonably be described as a fundamental danger to privacy,” the document continues. “In more recent times the organization appears to have adopted a less antagonistic attitude to privacy, and has at least structurally adjusted to the challenge of creating a privacy-friendly environment.”

‘Sour Grapes’

While no one imagines that Google would be thrilled with the ranking, what happened next has the makings of a brilliant Internet soap opera.

Privacy International posted on its Web site Sunday an open letter to Google. The letter alleges that Google contacted journalists before the release of Privacy International’s report and asserted the advocacy group has “a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft,” ostensibly to explain why the software maker was spared the distinction of being ranked worst.

Google’s actions stem from “sour grapes,” suggests Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. “We have no specific axe to grind with Google,” he states. “It is one of many companies demonstrating a poor privacy performance, and in assessing that performance we are acting solely with the intention of raising public awareness.”

It appears to be working. On Google’s own Google News site Monday, stories relating to the Google privacy ranking are placed high on the page.

An Accord on the Way?

Following the publication of the report, Privacy International is now calling on major Internet companies to meet in July in San Francisco for an accord on privacy. The idea is to help companies provide customers with consistent and strengthened privacy protections. Privacy International believes that privacy will soon become a key differentiator on the Internet and that customers expect strong and consistent privacy protection.

While other Internet service companies aren’t ranked at the very bottom, they’re not necessarily all privacy-friendly, either. Most of the major Internet service sites track user behavior, usually with the stated intent of providing more relevant content or more relevant advertisements.

From a search standpoint, if Google is able to provide results that better match one’s personal interests — for instance, “Jaguar” the car instead of big cats — Google will likely be used more often by consumers. However, it’s all a matter of what’s presented to users and how.

“The issue is like a political question,” Greg Sterling, principal analyst for Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld. “If you frame the question in one way, people will answer ‘No.’ But if you frame it another way, they’ll say ‘Yes.'”

The issue of privacy, Sterling noted, is very complicated, of course, and he’s not sure that most people have any idea of the variety of ways they can be tracked online. Google and other companies, he noted, aren’t as explicit about what they retain and how they use it as they can be.

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