Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Google bowls a googly

Google, the world’s most used internet search engine has been rated ‘hostile to privacy’ and placed bottom of the pile of Internet based service companies, whilst other big names like AOL, Apple and Yahoo! are identified as companies with policies and techniques that pose substantial threats to privacy.

The word “googling” officially entered the English language a year ago in June 2006 as billions around the planet got into the habit.

We enjoy it for the seamless way in which we can surf and trawl the oceans of the web. But the free lunch offered by internet companies comes with a price - the notorious “cookies”. These are files which are stored on our computers every time we use the web and note the details of our computer as we access a webpage.

A report published this week by Privacy International, the result of a six-month investigation, places Google, which handles 75% of all search referrals, at the bottom of its “race to the bottom”. It falls into the category of “comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy”.

Google is seducing cash-strapped university authorities with offers of email services they can’t refuse. Google hopes that students will be locked into “a relationship for life”. Students at Trinity College Dublin are being provided access to Google Apps for Education, an email network which they can retain throughout their life. Arizona State University in the US and Linkoping in Sweden already have such networks, while in Africa universities in three countries are using the company’s education package.

The data acquired by search engines provides a comprehensive idea of internet users’ lifestyle, tracking and recording products searched for, news items, video clips, images and maps as well as recording when we actually use the search engine itself. Plus they have the personal details you have to supply when registering for their services.

Google’s dirty-tricks department has hit back accusing Privacy International of being biased towards Microsoft. But PI’s conclusions indicate the scale of abuse throughout the industry in the race for market share. It says: “The current frenzy to "capture" ad space revenue through the exploitation of new technologies and tools will result in one of the greatest privacy challenges in recent decades. The Internet appears to be shifting as a whole toward this aim”.

Another Google critic, Googlewatch, has pointed out that the information gathered by search engines can be put into the hands of government and the police and that the boundaries between commerce and government are dangerously blurred.

In Britain the government can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications, with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order. And, since 9/11 and the Bush-Blair “war on terror”, the issue of consumer protection and government surveillance have become dangerously inter-twined.

Googlewatch points out that: “Google's relationships with government officials in all of the dozens of countries where they operate are a mystery, because Google never makes any statements about this. But here's a clue: Google uses the term ‘governmental request’ three times on their terms-of-use page and once on their privacy page. Google's language means that all Gmail account holders have consented to allow Google to show any and all email in their Gmail accounts to any official from any government whatsoever, even when the request is informal or extralegal, at Google's sole discretion.”

Internet companies’ willingness to sacrifice freedom of speech to their commercial interests and comply with government demands is ultra clear in China. “Google’s statements about respecting online privacy are the height of hypocrisy in view of its strategy in China”, said Reporters Without Borders which campaigns for journalists’ rights to press freedom. Organisations like Privacy International and others are campaigning for a responsible attitude to privacy by the corporate giants. But with an increasingly authoritarian state this is utopian. What is needed is a commonly-owned and co-operatively driven internet, owned and controlled by its users and free from commercial and state imperatives.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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