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Google needs Chief Privacy Officer

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Mon, Nov 1, 2010 at 5:08 pm

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Google needs Chief Privacy Officer

Google can to take one simple step to show that it cares about consumers’ privacy. The Internet giant simply needs to appoint a Chief Privacy Officer.

Instead, in it’s latest bit of PR spin Google as it tried to deal with the fallout from the Wi-Spy scandal, the company has muddied the water with an executive structure that virtually assures to confuse and will ultimately fail.

When there is an area that really matters to a company, somebody is put in charge.  Money matters to Google.  Therefore there is a Chief Financial Officer: Patrick Pichette. When it comes to Google’s money the buck, so to speak, stops there.  He reports directly to Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt.

Pichette is the guy who signed off the the dubious tax schemes known as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich,” strategies which allowed Google to save $3.1 billion in taxes over three years and reduce its overseas tax rate to 2.4 percent.

Google CEO Schmidt has demonstrated a tin ear win it comes to privacy. His most recent gaffe came when he told interviewers that if consumers don’t like Street View they can “just move.”  While he finally issued a statement claiming he misspoke,  it’s clear he just doesn’t get it when it comes to privacy.

If privacy really mattered to Google and Schmidt, there would be a Chief Privacy Officer.  The CPO would report to the CEO and have final say over privacy issues company-wide.

Instead, Google has just named Alma Whitten as director of privacy for engineering and product management.  In a company that really cared about privacy, Whitten would report to the CPO.  But Google doesn’t have one. Solution? Whitten reports to to Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice president for product management, and Bill Coughran, senior vice president of engineering.

In other words, the computer engineers who have pushed “right up to the creepy line” as Schmidt has put it, remain in charge.  And Whitten faces the almost impossible challenge of trying to please two bosses.

Complicating the picture is the fact that Google already has two executives with privacy in their titles: Peter Fleishman, global privacy counsel and Jane Horvath, privacy counsel. Not at all clear is how they relate to Whitten or for what, if anything, they are responsible.

When it comes to privacy at Google, who is on first?

Whitten clearly faces enormous challenges. If the reporting structure weren’t already Byzantine enough, consider this. She is based in London, eight time zones away from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA.  How much influence do you think she’ll actually have in the Googleplex?

If you’re a CEO who cares about something, you put someone in charge of it and have them report directly to you.  In Schmidt’s case, given his gaffe prone record on privacy, there would be a great personal benefit having a CPO report directly to him.  He’d probably learn something.

Until there finally is a true Chief Privacy Officer, Google’s engineers won’t just go “up to the creepy line,” they will continue to cross it regularly.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 361 posts on Inside Google.

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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