For some time, I’ve been trying to better understand Google’s worldview on privacy issues. The culture of companies fosters different privacy values and sensitivities, and the signals sent by those at the top shape how the organization itself conceives of and addresses privacy issues. In wrestling with this, I read every article discussing Google and privacy in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, resulting in a paper titled, Beyond Google and Evil, How policy makers, journalists and consumers should talk differently about Google and privacy.
In last week’s New Yorker, which is doing the rounds, Ken Auletta writes (subscribers only) about the growing pains the company has. But it also includes this strange discussion of privacy. Auletta writes:
At the same time, Brin and Page can seem indifferent to users’ anxieties. In 2007, at Google’s annual Zeitgeist conference, a gathering of Google business partners, public intellectuals, traditional-media executives, and technologists, Brin declared that “the No. 1 privacy issue we deal with is that there is some information about someone on the Web . . . sometimes it’s not true and people just publish stuff.” The No. 2 privacy issue, he said, was “various things where people get their machine hijacked or somebody . . . breaks into various accounts of theirs.” Concern about the information collected on cookies he dismissed as “sort of Big Brother-type fears”–in other words, paranoia. Page agreed: “Sergey is just saying there are practical privacy issues that are different from the ones debated.”
If the corporate culture is shaped by how principals frame and discuss issues, how reassured should we be about Google’s privacy worldview? Why do we trust this company with our documents, communications, etc, if concerns about massive data collection are conceived of as mere paranoia?
Let me put this a different way: if it were your job to design privacy into Google products and policy, how much support would you feel that you had from the top? What priorities are expressed by that statement, and how would it shape your response?