Google Imposes Blackout On … Google?

What happens when Google itself gets Googled? The apparent answer: it reacts much like any privacy-obsessed corporation would when a journalist asks too many questions.

Last month, ran an article examining the reams of personal information Google is steadily amassing — both data that is publicly accessible via the world’s most popular search engine, as well as private data on the company’s internal databases and servers. In her lede, CNET staff writer Elinor Mills turned the table on Google CEO Eric Schmidt, revealing through the search engine that he is a billionaire who earlier this year “pulled in almost $90 million from sales of Google stock and made at least another $50 million selling shares in the past two months as the stock leaped to more than $300 a share.”

Mills also noted that Schmidt lives with his wife Wendy in Atherton, Calif., where they hosted a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser for Al Gore in 2000, and that he has “roamed the desert at the Burning Man art festival in Nevada, and is an avid amateur pilot”:

That such detailed personal information is so readily available on public Web sites makes most people uncomfortable. But it’s nothing compared with the information Google collects and doesn’t make public.

Assuming Schmidt uses his company’s services, someone with access to Google’s databases could find out what he writes in his emails and to whom he sends them, where he shops online or even what restaurants he’s located via online maps. Like so many other Google users, his virtual life has been meticulously recorded.

The onus is on Google to keep this “tempting record of personal information” under wraps, Mills wrote in a long and balanced piece which highlighted some unnerving facets of Google’s operations, including that its free Gmail service scans users’ emails so it can include advertising related to the content of the messages.

It was all a bit much for Google, which responded by declaring that it would not talk to CNET reporters for the next year, as CNET quietly disclosed in an article last Thursday.

In today’s New York Times, editor in chief Jai Singh explains that David Krane, Google’s director of public relations, called to complain because “they were unhappy about the fact we used Schmidt’s private information in our story.” After Krane was told that CNET’s had only published public information found through Google itself, he informed CNET of the yearlong speaking ban.

Then, in an “instant-message interview” with the Times, Krane ducked, saying “You can put us down for a ‘no comment.’”

What is ironic here — besides the idea of an “instant-message interview” — is Google’s shortsightedness. It’s due in large part to Google that more information is easily accessible to journalists and the public than ever before, and the search engine’s vast popularity has made Schmidt and many others associated with the company rich. (Separately, the Times reports today on the “spectacular market debut” of a Chinese search site,, which strongly resembles Google and has now earned Google a return currently valued at nearly 20 times the company’s recent $5 million or so investment.)

We live in a Google culture, and yet Google cannot stomach an enterprising reporter who makes that point with meticulous Google-aided reporting? It’s time for Google to realize that the street it paved itself is a two-way one — and to develop a tougher hide.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.