“J. Edgar Google”

by on July 7, 2008 · 18 comments

Too funny. Anti-Google gadfly Scott Cleland has coined a hilarious new name for the company to highlight his privacy concerns with the search giant and its business practices. My chief concern now is . . . Which executive do we suspect of being a cross-dresser?

Cleland has a point. Foremost, I think, the judge that ordered Google to disclose a great mass of YouTube viewer information is being cavalier with the legitimate privacy concerns in a data-dump that big. I don’t share Berin’s confidence that a protective order will control access to, and uses of, this information. Data is so, so volatile.

But the judge is in a position to rule like this because Google collects and keeps so much information.

I have complimented Google on good practices in the past, but the modesty of the steps it has taken to protect user privacy is showing. At the time, their niggardly protective efforts forced them to try importing shades of gray into a circumstance that is black or white: They said their logs were “much more anonymous” than before, rather than flatly anonymous.

Well, they’re ‘not very anonymous’ if they have IP addresses and usernames in them, are they. But Google also boxed itself into a corner by arguing elsewhere that IP addresses aren’t really personally identifiable information.

“We . . . are strong supporters of the idea that data protection laws should apply to any data that could identify you. The reality is though that in most cases, an IP address without additional information cannot.” (‘Sure, we love the heavy regulatory regime you’ve got going because we love privacy, but let’s not include IP addresses, mkay?’)

The modesty of its protective steps, and the company’s go-along get-along approach to regulators in Europe (+ would-be Europeans here in the States), are coming home to roost. Instead of taking great strides to protect privacy and telling regulators to just back off, Google has taken small steps and tripped over its shoelaces.

‘J. Edgar Google’ has created the circumstances in which a judge can require them to hand over lots of personally identifiable user data. It’s a situation in which few people believe they will be protected.

  • Hance Haney

    Jim,

    Do you think the problem here is Web services who collect data, which may be personally-identifiable, for legitimate purposes or prosecutors and litigants who think they have a right to the data because it will advance their causes? Congress could pass a law making this data inadmissable in a court of law for most if not all purposes. Of course, government would love to have a record of everything we say or do. If government can’t tax us directly it would like to to tax us indirectly. Some say it exists for no other purpose than to tax us. I’m not sure we have a private sector problem here as much as we have a government problem.

    Hance

  • http://www.techliberation.com hhaney

    Jim,

    Do you think the problem here is Web services who collect data, which may be personally-identifiable, for legitimate purposes or prosecutors and litigants who think they have a right to the data because it will advance their causes? Congress could pass a law making this data inadmissable in a court of law for most if not all purposes. Of course, government would love to have a record of everything we say or do. If government can’t tax us directly it would like to to tax us indirectly. Some say it exists for no other purpose than to tax us. I’m not sure we have a private sector problem here as much as we have a government problem.

    Hance

  • http://www.emergentchaos.com Adam

    To answer your first question, http://www.mashdump.com/1996-sergey-brin.jpg :)

    You can, of course, google teh answer.

  • http://www.emergentchaos.com Adam

    To answer your first question, http://www.mashdump.com/1996-sergey-brin.jpg :)

    You can, of course, google teh answer.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/jim-harper Jim Harper

    Thanks, Adam – The mystery is solved and the J. Edgar Hoover analogy is complete!

    Hance – I think the more significant problem is the government’s desire to access data for its own purposes. The thing we need from all entities, though – public and private alike – is data minimization, including data destruction policies. I’ve written a little bit (’cause I only know a little bit) about synthesized data – data in which inferences are valid for the particular interests of the researcher but not otherwise.

    I’m not prepared to say that litigants should be denied access to data, which could work many injustices, but if the data weren’t compiled and held in the first place, the attractive nuisance of big data storehouses would be denied existence, and government and litigants would have nothing to ask for.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/jim-harper Jim Harper

    Thanks, Adam – The mystery is solved and the J. Edgar Hoover analogy is complete!

    Hance – I think the more significant problem is the government’s desire to access data for its own purposes. The thing we need from all entities, though – public and private alike – is data minimization, including data destruction policies. I’ve written a little bit (’cause I only know a little bit) about synthesized data – data in which inferences are valid for the particular interests of the researcher but not otherwise.

    I’m not prepared to say that litigants should be denied access to data, which could work many injustices, but if the data weren’t compiled and held in the first place, the attractive nuisance of big data storehouses would be denied existence, and government and litigants would have nothing to ask for.

  • DB

    Jim,

    When the Washington Post referred to Google as “Big Brother,” you wrote at length about this faulty analogy:

    http://techliberation.com/2008/05/23/headline-writers-lacking-literary-knowledge/

    How is this analogy different?

    J. Edgar Hoover was not the CEO of a private company…

    I completely agree that data minimization is needed to prevent the government from tapping vast databases of personal information. However, the Google/Viacom situation concerns a dispute between two private parties, not government data-mining.

    Why are you concerned that Viacom could use this information to sue copyright infringers? These users are stealing Viacom’s property. Why shouldn’t they be sued? Users should know that privacy is not a shield for theft, unless you are arguing that Google customers enjoy some search engine/user confidentiality.

  • Hilary

    The issue is not whether or not users should be sued. The issue is that Google is going to hand over information without the the consent of the people who belong to that information. And, frankly, it’s a double standard. People can’t take Viacom’s stuff without permission, but Viacom can take user information without the user’s consent. Anyway, there’s a petition if anyone wants to sign it: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/petition/912395622?z00m=15670232

  • Jim Harper

    This analogy is different because it’s entertaining. It permitted me to ponder openly whether Google execs were cross-dressers. How am I gonna pass that up?!

    But you are right to draw the focus back to the privacy threats from governments, which vastly outstrip those from the private sector. People can and should avoid Google if they want, and this is not true of FBI Directors.

    The primary reason I criticize private companies is because of the use governments will make of the data they collect. I believe this is the prime concern of most privay advocates, though many make their arguments in strongly anti-corporate terms.

    Now, I didn’t say that I was concerned that Viacom would use this to sue copyright infringers. I’m from the “privacy for any reason or no reason” school. I don’t think Viacom should get access to who watched LonelyGirl15 videos over and over again, for example, because it’s none of their damn business.

    Privacy does have the effect of protecting nominal law-breakers from punishment. The law-breaking you do in your home, for example – gun possession, illegal drug use, abuse of legal drugs, giving a little wine to your children with dinner, smoking Cuban cigars, failure to dispose properly of solvents, not keeping your wiring up to code, possession of illegal fireworks, etc. – is obscured by the shielding that walls give you. This is not the product of some legal privilege (wall/occupant confidentiality?). It’s a product of the fact that information about your law-breaking doesn’t pass these barriers or accumulate anywhere.

    Were Google to get rid of data it doesn’t need, the data would not exist for someone to want to access. No need to get into strange legal privileges.

  • DB

    Jim,

    When the Washington Post referred to Google as “Big Brother,” you wrote at length about this faulty analogy:

    http://techliberation.com/2008/05/23/headline-w

    How is this analogy different?

    J. Edgar Hoover was not the CEO of a private company…

    I completely agree that data minimization is needed to prevent the government from tapping vast databases of personal information. However, the Google/Viacom situation concerns a dispute between two private parties, not government data-mining.

    Why are you concerned that Viacom could use this information to sue copyright infringers? These users are stealing Viacom’s property. Why shouldn’t they be sued? Users should know that privacy is not a shield for theft, unless you are arguing that Google customers enjoy some search engine/user confidentiality.

  • Hilary

    The issue is not whether or not users should be sued. The issue is that Google is going to hand over information without the the consent of the people who belong to that information. And, frankly, it’s a double standard. People can’t take Viacom’s stuff without permission, but Viacom can take user information without the user’s consent. Anyway, there’s a petition if anyone wants to sign it: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/petition/912395622?z00m=15670232

  • DB

    The lawbreaking you describe does not fit this situation. Aren’t all of these examples offenses against the state (or “the people”)? Isn’t copyright violation a civil offense against a private party?

    What if I steal your lawnmower and put a big sign on my lawn that says “HAHAHA I STOLE YOUR LAWNMOWER.” You would seem to be arguing that because the lawnmower resides within my walls, you can’t sue me to get it back.

    This is the argument put forth by YouTube users who infringe Viacom’s copyrights. By posting a video, they blatantly advertise their copyright infringement and declare legal sanctuary within YouTube’s walls.

  • Jim Harper

    This analogy is different because it’s entertaining. It permitted me to ponder openly whether Google execs were cross-dressers. How am I gonna pass that up?!

    But you are right to draw the focus back to the privacy threats from governments, which vastly outstrip those from the private sector. People can and should avoid Google if they want, and this is not true of FBI Directors.

    The primary reason I criticize private companies is because of the use governments will make of the data they collect. I believe this is the prime concern of most privay advocates, though many make their arguments in strongly anti-corporate terms.

    Now, I didn’t say that I was concerned that Viacom would use this to sue copyright infringers. I’m from the “privacy for any reason or no reason” school. I don’t think Viacom should get access to who watched LonelyGirl15 videos over and over again, for example, because it’s none of their damn business.

    Privacy does have the effect of protecting nominal law-breakers from punishment. The law-breaking you do in your home, for example – gun possession, illegal drug use, abuse of legal drugs, giving a little wine to your children with dinner, smoking Cuban cigars, failure to dispose properly of solvents, not keeping your wiring up to code, possession of illegal fireworks, etc. – is obscured by the shielding that walls give you. This is not the product of some legal privilege (wall/occupant confidentiality?). It’s a product of the fact that information about your law-breaking doesn’t pass these barriers or accumulate anywhere.

    Were Google to get rid of data it doesn’t need, the data would not exist for someone to want to access. No need to get into strange legal privileges.

  • Jim Harper

    I don’t think you’re clear on the posture of this case. Viacom is suing YouTube/Google for contrubutory infringement because it believes that YouTube provides a platform on which many copyrights are violated and doesn’t police against copyright infringement well enough.

    The issues in the case, then, include how much copyright infringement occurs on YouTube and how much YouTube/Google does to prevent it. The identities and habits of direct infringers and non-infringers are not an issue in the case, except to the extent that the habits of infringers might demonstrate YouTube/Google’s failure to police against it.

    The analogy to a stolen lawnmower is difficult to work with. If someone had posted a sign saying they had stolen a lawnmower, the rightful owner would be justified in suing that person and using the legal process to develop more evidence of his or her theft – just like Viacom could sue any YouTube user it believes has infringed their copyrights and subpoena YouTube/Google for relevant information about that user.

    When there has been a lawnmower theft, garages secure everyone against the prying eyes of the theft victim even though this makes theft easier to perpetrate. We countenance that because it protects the privacy of a great mass of people, preventing any aggrieved person from rummaging around in the things of others. You’ve got to have justified suspicion and use legal process to get into other people’s business/garages.

    As far as collecting information goes, a lawnmower analogy that would map to the Viacom information demand would be if the victim of the lawnmower theft sued a gardening service that regularly accessed everyone’s garages and said, “You can see inside everyone’s garages, so you know who has our lawnmower and you are liable for the theft too. Now give us information about what is in *every one of your customer’s garages* so we can determine how much theft you have been involved it.”

    Needless to say, a lot of innocent users of the gardening service would be swept up in the data demand.

  • Jim Harper

    . . . involved in.”

  • DB

    The lawbreaking you describe does not fit this situation. Aren’t all of these examples offenses against the state (or “the people”)? Isn’t copyright violation a civil offense against a private party?

    What if I steal your lawnmower and put a big sign on my lawn that says “HAHAHA I STOLE YOUR LAWNMOWER.” You would seem to be arguing that because the lawnmower resides within my walls, you can’t sue me to get it back.

    This is the argument put forth by YouTube users who infringe Viacom’s copyrights. By posting a video, they blatantly advertise their copyright infringement and declare legal sanctuary within YouTube’s walls.

  • Jim Harper

    I don’t think you’re clear on the posture of this case. Viacom is suing YouTube/Google for contrubutory infringement because it believes that YouTube provides a platform on which many copyrights are violated and doesn’t police against copyright infringement well enough.

    The issues in the case, then, include how much copyright infringement occurs on YouTube and how much YouTube/Google does to prevent it. The identities and habits of direct infringers and non-infringers are not an issue in the case, except to the extent that the habits of infringers might demonstrate YouTube/Google’s failure to police against it.

    The analogy to a stolen lawnmower is difficult to work with. If someone had posted a sign saying they had stolen a lawnmower, the rightful owner would be justified in suing that person and using the legal process to develop more evidence of his or her theft – just like Viacom could sue any YouTube user it believes has infringed their copyrights and subpoena YouTube/Google for relevant information about that user.

    When there has been a lawnmower theft, garages secure everyone against the prying eyes of the theft victim even though this makes theft easier to perpetrate. We countenance that because it protects the privacy of a great mass of people, preventing any aggrieved person from rummaging around in the things of others. You’ve got to have justified suspicion and use legal process to get into other people’s business/garages.

    As far as collecting information goes, a lawnmower analogy that would map to the Viacom information demand would be if the victim of the lawnmower theft sued a gardening service that regularly accessed everyone’s garages and said, “You can see inside everyone’s garages, so you know who has our lawnmower and you are liable for the theft too. Now give us information about what is in *every one of your customer’s garages* so we can determine how much theft you have been involved it.”

    Needless to say, a lot of innocent users of the gardening service would be swept up in the data demand.

  • Jim Harper

    . . . involved in.”

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