Privacy International has accused Google of embarking upon a smear campaign within the media to discredit both PI and a report, to be published in full later in the year, which ranks the privacy performance of the top Internet service companies. The interim results which were published on the 9th Jun, places Google at the bottom of the privacy ranking league.
Google is slated for many reasons relating to privacy, including some worrying ones such as personal user information being retained for an indefinite period of time but without the use having an option to delete it, and the recording of search strings and IP addresses of its users with no clear policy regarding when that data is deleted, thought to be between 18 and 24 months.
PI obviously knew that a Google storm was going to break as a result of this, because it states within that interim report “we are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google's approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organizations. While a number of companies share some of these negative elements, none comes close to achieving status as an endemic threat to privacy.”
But perhaps it was not expecting to receive information from two European journalists who, independently of each other, revealed that Google representatives had contacted them with the claim that "Privacy International has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft."
In an open letter to Google, dated 10th June, here’s what Privacy International has to say in response, in full:June 10, 2007
CEO, Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043
Dear Mr. Schmidt,
You may be aware that Privacy International yesterday published its first privacy ranking of leading companies operating on the Internet. Google Inc performed very poorly, scoring lowest among the other major companies that we surveyed.
I am writing to express my concern not just at this unfortunate result, but also at communications between Google Inc and members of the media during the period immediately prior to publication of our report. Two European journalists have independently told us that Google representatives have contacted them with the claim that "Privacy International has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft". I presume this was motivated because Microsoft scored an overall better result than Google in the rankings.
Let me state here on the record that in the seventeen years of our existence, no company has ever made such a claim. Privacy International is a fiercely independent organization that has never shown fear nor favour. Again for the record, we have been fierce and relentless critics of Microsoft since our inception as a watchdog. You will see for example we that publicly supported the EU Commission investigation into Microsoft, that we nominated Microsoft for the US Big Brother Award in 2003, that we awarded Microsoft the "Worst Corporate Invader" award at the 1999 US Big Brother Awards, that we publicly accused Microsoft of subverting its software security, that we co-authored a critical submission to the US Federal Trade Commission against Microsoft, and that in 2001 we filed a joint complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission against Microsoft, alleging unfair and deceptive trade practices.
According to our sources, your representative or representatives made particular reference to one member of our 70-member international Advisory Board. This man is a current employee of Microsoft. I can confirm that he joined our Advisory Board well before he was headhunted by Microsoft. At the time he was the director of a leading UK non-governmental organization and had more than six years extensive involvement in the work of Privacy International. He is a decent, skilled and honorable man who upon his appointment with Microsoft offered us his resignation. We refused to accept it, and he continues to serve on the Board in a private capacity. As an exceptionally skilled IT and security expert he is a superb resource in our day-to-day work across many fields of privacy. To infer that he in any way influences our decisions with regard to Microsoft is not just inaccurate but it is also insulting.
Privacy International is and has always fought hard for its independence, often to our own great expense. With the very rare exception of expenses sponsorship for important public events we receive no corporate money, and certainly at no point have we received any from Microsoft.
Can I be so bold as to suggest that your company's actions stem from sour grapes that you achieved the lowest ranking amongst the Internet giants? We have no specific axe to grind with Google. 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. And while it is true that we have in the past taken legal action against Google's Gmail service, it is equally the case that we have campaigned against Amazon and eBay, both of which, regardless of this history, scored higher than Google in the rankings.
So do we have a vested interest in attacking Google? No. Some of the people we work with have Microsoft connections, but we work with many thousands of people as partners, collaborators and managers. One of our trustees, for example, works for a law firm that has Microsoft as one of its many clients. We agreed with this person that a legal document should be drawn up expressly fire-walling his professional from his private involvement with Privacy International. We socialise with Microsoft employees, but then again we socialise with employees of the UK Home Office, which in a recent celebrated chapter attempted to destroy our reputation following critical work on the UK ID card proposals. We are happy to reach out to anyone, regardless of their affiliation.
I believe an apology from you is in order, but if you cannot deliver this then I think you should reflect carefully on the actions of your representatives before embarking on what I believe amounts to a smear campaign. As with Microsoft, eBay and any other organization we are more than happy to work with you to help resolve the many privacy challenges for Google that our report has highlighted.
The Google response should be interesting, to say the least. Expect this one to run and run, up to and beyond the date in September when that final report is published…