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David Tereshchuk

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Google Beats All at Keeping Secrets... So Far

Posted: 05/23/2012 4:10 pm

Three media behemoths -- all threatened by small snippets of information. And brought low by the discovery of that information. Or not, as the case may be.

The difference in outcomes, so far at least, is key to a telling tale about today's media landscape.

Facebook, News Corporation and Google are the behemoths involved. Facebook's ignominious Initial Public Offering, and its stock-price slump that followed, have revealed that secret (and (suddenly more realistic) information about its financial prospects was allegedly hoarded misleadingly by Morgan Stanley, its banker for the offering.

News Corporation's cavalier hacking by its British "journalists" into people's private communications caused the closing of its highest circulation newspaper, and presages more and more trouble, internationally as well as in the UK.

And Google -- well, there's Google. The company that long ago lost its right to bask in the early motto "Do No Evil," is now buffeted by revelations about its data-vacuuming of individuals' private information; but unlike both its giant counterparts, young Facebook and the aging News Corporation, it is not looking to be in any serious trouble about it -- not yet anyway.

The way Google's "Street View" cars gather pictures from their roof-mounted cameras as they roam through our neighborhoods is of course magically useful for the Google Maps application. But what else they collect as well has prompted outrage among citizens in both the U.S. and Europe. It's believed that such details include the contents of emails, photographs, chat messages, postings on social networks intended for friends only... and more, maybe much, much more.

We have to say "maybe", and that this pillaging is "believed" to have gone on, since so far Google has done a pretty good job of keeping pubic investigators at bay. The company may be blithe about individuals' privacy, but it's powerfully zealous about corporate confidentiality.

In Europe, where authorities' efforts have been more energetic, Google was forced to admit that its cars were drawing in material from households' unencrypted WiFi networks -- having at first denied it. Or rather claimed in Germany that it was a software programming mistake. And separately in France it only admitted what it was doing after authorities were able to examine a Street View car. The company's previous reticence was because "we did not think it was necessary" to reveal the data-collection, according to its "Global Privacy Counselor" Peter Fleischer.

And exactly what has been collected is still not completely clear. When German authorities got to examine a Street View car, its hard-drive had been removed.

Here in the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission looking into similar complaints could find no violation of American law -- perhaps not surprisingly since the Google engineer behind the software programming "mistake" took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination and said nothing. (He still says nothing, as the New York Times learned this week, despite an in-person encounter). The FCC delivered a wrist-slap fine of $25,000 against Google for obstructing the investigation.

A posse of state Attorneys-General, led by Connecticut, have made about as little progress as the Feds. And individual civil suits alleging invasion of privacy, consolidated into a class action in a San Francisco court, are being straight-armed by Google's determinedly winning leave to appeal a judgement favoring the plaintiffs.

We may have to flip back to Europe in hope of any speedy resolution and full disclosure of what Google is doing with our private information, and what remedy if any is possible for the aggrieved citizens.

In Brussels -- that center of perhaps overweening and remote governmental power -- the European Commission's Vice President, Joaquín Almunia Amann (who's also the Commissioner responsible for competition -- in other words the top anti-trust enforcer) will decide "in a matter of weeks" if Google is breaking European law -- across a range of its activities, not merely Street Views. Remember how the mighty Microsoft, apparently unassailable in its day, was so effectively made to mend its ways in a series of Euro-rulings, culminating in its complete surrender in 2007?

Meanwhile in Britain, my own old home-country -- which can strike me as a halfway house between the continent's too-powerful authority and America's too-often toothless regulators -- the case of News Corporation's privacy-invasion has taken a wild twist this week. And it demonstrates quite a difference between Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate and Google -- a contrast that suggests a leaky old tub of a cruise ship versus a sleek ocean-going yacht.

Scotland Yard's belated but now energetic investigation of News Corp. (there's nothing like hacking the voice-mail of a 13-year old murdered girl to ensure public outrage) has discovered that someone in the now-shuttered tabloid the News of the World was hacking into the voice-mail of the paper's own editor -- at the time Andy Coulson, who later became the Prime Minister's media chief. The calls being hacked were those from Coulson to a government minister's aide.

News Corps' strenuous efforts over time to head off official scrutiny just haven't in the end matched up to Google's. If you thought the Melbourne patriarch Rupert Murdoch was an information control-freak -- he's got nothing on those Bay Area whizzes Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

 

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