They both said that when we use online services, we give up privacy in the process. There it is on the table. They are providing the service, and you're providing the information, and should you be concerned about this trade-off, Schmidt says simply: "Trust us."
Um, I don't Think So
I'm a huge fan of Google services. I'm writing this blog post in Google Docs. I used Google Reader to find the idea for this story. I'm in Google services all day every day, but do I trust them with my information? Not completely. I worry a lot about how much information Google has about me and what I'm doing professionally and personally.
Google is also in the advertising business and the two goals of privacy and selling ads are often at odds. The information Google collects on its users is a virtual treasure trove of demographic information about virtually every aspect of our computing lives within the Google family of services.
Will They Ever Use or Share This Information?
Eric Schmidt says that Google would never use this information in a nefarious way because it's not the way his company does business. But times are good for Google even against the backdrop of a very dire economic conditions. What if somewhere down the road, Google found itself in the position that General Motors finds itself today, would they not do whatever is necessary, even sell personal demographic information about users if it meant the difference between surviving and bankruptcy? I'm fairly certain it would abandon its principals in a heart beat because Google has a bigger legal obligation to its shareholders, and in the real world, faced with economic disaster, the moral component that Schmidt hides behind would melt away.
Here's what Schmidt said when asked about using information according to a transcript of the interview on TechCrunch:
So Gmail. Suppose I use Gmail. You guys can see all of any Gmail.
But we don’t by practice.
Well, yeah, but you know what the argument is about that?
We have rules, Charlie.
Suppose you didn’t like me.
Even if we don’t like you, we won’t violate our rules.
Yeah? So what? So you’re saying —
You’re saying trust us? Trust us?
That’s it? We’re not going to sneak a look?
We do not sneak a look.
And that's just economic pressure. What about legal pressure from an over-zealous district attorney or political pressure from the state or Federal authorities. How much pressure could Google truly withstand before it folded and handed over your information portfolio to government officials? What about a rogue employee who finds dirt on someone? There are countless ways for information to leak.
So It all Comes Down To Trade-offs In the End
As Mayer and Schmidt freely admitted, the party line is clearly this: If you use our services, you give something to get something. As computer privacy advocates like Richard Stallman have stated, your data is safest on your own your local hard drive on your own computer. As we use more cloud services like Google and Twitter and Facebook, and we give up more and more and more of ourselves online, we do so at a price.
Certainly at some level, all users understand that we are giving up something for the convenience of having access to our data whenever and wherever we want. But make no mistake about it, Google understands this trade-off and is beginning to sing it from the hill tops, just in case you weren't completely clear about it. And should you trust Google or Facebook or Twitter? That's a decision we all have to make, but ultimately, I think you know when it comes down to it, they will sell you out without a thought no matter what Schmidt says, all it takes just a little pressure.
Google's Trust Issue Won't Go Away.