Google moves to profit from its “crown jewels” — your data

A Wall Street Journal article this week details how Google is increasingly moving to maximize profits  from the vast amount of personal data it has amassed in its global network of servers at the expense of consumers’ privacy.

The article by Jessica Vascellaro, part of the Journal’s excellent series about online privacy called “What They Know,” shows  how commercial expediency overcame the reluctance of founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to exploit users’ data.

Google chairman Eric Schmidt once claimed Google put its money “where our principles are.”  The Internet giant’s attempted joint redefinition with Verizon this week of “net neutrality” and the Journal’s revealing article showing how profits are triumphing over privacy  demonstrate the stark new reality: Google puts its principles where the money is.

So much for “don’t be evil,” but then that’s how corporations really are.

Vascellaro begins her piece like this:

“A confidential, seven-page Google Inc. ‘vision statement’ shows the information-age giant in a deep round of soul-searching over a basic question: How far should it go in profiting from its crown jewels—the vast trove of data it possesses about people’s activities

“Should it tap more of what it knows about Gmail users? Should it build a vast ‘trading platform’ for buying and selling Web data? Should it let people pay to not see any ads at all?”

Some possibilities like using search data to target display ads Google sells or exchanging data with marketers for ad targeting, are still under discussion.  Others, such as behavioral targeting, which Google prefers to call “interest-based advertising,” are rapidly becoming routine. Or as Vascellaro puts it:

“Google is pushing into uncharted privacy territory for the company. Until recently, it refrained from aggressively cashing in on its own data about Internet users, fearing a backlash. But the rapid emergence of scrappy rivals who track people’s online activities and sell that data, along with Facebook Inc.’s growth, is forcing a shift.”

No matter what the founders’ original values, corporations as they grow and mature act like, well, corporations.  And Google is now a $23 billion global corporate giant. Yes, there apparently has been angst around the Googleplex as the company started to act like all other companies. According to the Journal:

“Tensions erupted during a meeting with about a dozen executives at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters about 18 months ago when Messrs. Page and Brin shouted at each other over how aggressively Google should move into targeting, according to a person who had knowledge of the meeting. ‘It was awkward,’ this person said. ‘It was like watching your parents fight.’

“Mr. Brin was more reluctant than Mr. Page, this person said. Eventually, he acquiesced and plans for Google to sell ads targeted to people’s interests went ahead.”

But that dynamic will continue to play out again and again whether the roles are filled by Page and Brin, or their successors. Google is sitting on a potential gold mine of data.  The Journal puts it like this:

“The vision statement describes the company’s immense search database as ‘the BEST source of user interests found on the Internet,’ during a discussion of ways to make ads more relevant to users. ‘No other player could compete,’ it says. Later, the document warns that some ideas range from ‘safe’ to ‘not’ safe.

“The most aggressive ideas would put Google at the cutting edge of the business of tracking people online to profit from their actions. A data-trading marketplace, for instance, would allow personal information from many sources—including Google—to be combined and used for highly personalized tracking of individuals.”

So, at the end of the day and the internal debate, Google has our data and will exploit it in increasing intrusive  and profitable ways as a result of natural corporate pressures.

What’s the solution?  Google, I’m sure, would say, “Trust us.”   Clearly that won’t work. People have and after some “angst” at the Googleplex and reports of raised voices in meetings, Google is putting principles where the money is.

The real  answer: Regulation of online advertising.  Congress, perhaps because of things like the revelations in the Journal’s “What they Know” series, is the mood. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Il, has introduced a privacy bill and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, is circulating the draft of another.

The Senate Commerce Committee just held hearings on the topic where FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz discussed the idea of creating a “Do Not Track” list similar to the FTC’s “Do Not Call” list.

In fact I’m in Washington this week and am meeting with Senate staff members to discuss the possibility of legislation to create just such a list.

Such an approach has overwhelming popular support.  Our recent national poll conducted by Grove Insight Ltd. found 90 % favor “more laws that protect the privacy of your personal information; ”  80% backed creation of a “Do Not Track” list.

No matter their beginnings, companies ultimately put their principles where the money is.  It’s the responsibility of legislators and regulators to act in the marketplace to protect consumers.  The good news now is that as Google is rapidly — even cynically — adjusting its principles in pursuit of profits, there are signs that Congress and the FTC will act to protect consumers’ privacy.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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