Google Is Not a Heroic Defender of Privacy

The New York Times reports that a coalition, including companies like Google, is trying to push tougher privacy laws for digital information. Tougher privacy laws for the government, that is—not for the private corporations like Google and Facebook that own your information, monetize it, and spill it with alarming and increasing regularity.

The Times gives that hypocrisy short shrift—just a paragraph at the bottom of the story. So it’s worth recalling some of Google and Facebook’s greatest privacy hits from just the last few months:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt on privacy:

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

And then there was the Google Buzz debacle, which exposed Gmail contacts to the public without your permission, and which Schmidt tried to slough off.

Facebook isn’t in the coalition, but we’ll throw this in as an example of the privacy threat these companies present. It recently exposed tens of millions of users’ information without warning. CEO Mark Zuckerberg nonchalantly explained why:

A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built, doing a privacy change - doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

Sound like a guy to trust? How about this guy? Schmidt again, as reported by Fortune:

“All this information that you have about us… Does that scare everyone in this room?” The questioner asked… “Would you prefer someone else?” Schmidt shot back… “Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?”

Talk about hubris. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago:

You mean a democratic government subject to, say, open-records laws, checks and balances, and the periodic will of the people?

Look, it’s all good that somebody’s trying to rein in government intrusions of privacy. Bravo. But the press shouldn’t let these corporations act like noble defenders of liberty. They aren’t.

You’d be a lot better served reading Ryan Tate on this issue than stuff like this NYT article.

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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.