Google as Big Brother

A Journal op-ed interview finds Eric Schmidt embracing the role

Google’s Eric Schmidt just can’t keep his foot out of his mouth.

The guy has a proclivity for giving Big Brother-like quotes to the press—which would be quaint if the guy didn’t have so much access to so much of our private information.

Do Google’s flacks sweat when Schmidt gives an interview? Or are they stuck in the Google Is Good bubble with him, helped along by a mostly admiring press, as well as gurus who implicitly compare the company to Jesus Christ?

Holman Jenkins interviewed CEO Eric Schmidt in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal editorial pages and came away with some gems (emphasis mine):

“I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions,” he elaborates. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

Let’s say you’re walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, “we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are.” Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there’s a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you’ve been reading about took place on the next block.

And this:

Mr. Schmidt is a believer in targeted advertising because, simply, he’s a believer in targeted everything: “The power of individual targeting—the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

That’s a bit scary when you think about it.

Jenkins quotes Schmidt on the implications of his company and Internet culture sounding like someone deep across the border into La La Land:

He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

Again, it’s worth remembering what Schmidt has said previously about privacy.

Like this:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Or this:

“The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity. In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it.”

There was the Google Buzz privacy debacle where Schmidt’s company unilaterally and intentionally exposed users’ most-frequent email contacts. Never mind, that: “Nobody was harmed.”

Schmidt isn’t alone in this line of thinking, of course. It’s something of a disease in Silicon Valley, apparently. Facebook has repeatedly and aggressively violated its users’ privacy.

Why do you think it is that these Internet titans with so much access and control over our information have far looser views on privacy than the rest of us?

As Ryan Tate, who has done excellent work holding these guys’ feet to the fire, has said

The philosophy that secrets are useful mainly to indecent people is awfully convenient for Schmidt as the CEO of a company whose value proposition revolves around info-hoarding.

I should say they have far looser views on privacy for us, the non-billionaires. Remember when Schmidt threw a fit over an awesome story Cnet did putting together his “private” details via public Google searches? High hypocrisy. It’s also worth remembering this fun Tate story about what Schmidt doesn’t want online about himself.

Jenkins takes a skeptical tone here in this well done piece, here about Google’s privacy and antitrust scrutiny:

Now that the tables are turned, he says, Google will persevere and prevail by doing what he says Microsoft failed to do—make sure its every move is “good for consumers” and “fair” to competitors.

Uh huh. Google takes a similarly generous view of its own motives on the politically vexed issue of privacy. Mr. Schmidt says regulation is unnecessary because Google faces such strong incentives to treat its users right, since they will walk away the minute Google does anything with their personal information they find “creepy.”

Really? Some might be skeptical that a user with, say, a thousand photos on Picasa would find it so easy to walk away. Or a guy with 10 years of emails on Gmail. Or a small business owner who has come to rely on Google Docs as an alternative to Microsoft Office. Isn’t stickiness—even slightly extortionate stickiness—what these Google services aim for?

Jenkins, surprisingly enough, is making the pro-regulatory case here—or at least bringing it up—in questioning the “Don’t Be Evil” nonsense. He’s talking about network effects that make it hard to leave a site or service, and they’re very real.

The press would do well to focus on them more and on the implications of having monopoly firms like Google and Facebook (and anyone big or small, really) with extensive access to private information and a strong incentive to exploit it.

The Journal’s “What They Know” series is a good start.

Further Reading:

Pushing Back Against Facebook’s Privacy Practices
: The press and others bring needed new scrutiny to the social network

WSJ Privacy Series Raises Questions on Google’s Power: The bedrock principles of the Googleplex were built on sand, after all

Google Is Not a Heroic Defender of Privacy

WSJ Turns Over the Privacy Rock Online: An excellent investigation shows the alarming amount of info Web sites collect about you

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.