October 13, 2011, 1:31 PM — Few companies inspire the awe — and the dread about privacy concerns — that Google does, because of its search engine, Google maps and its Street View imagery, its Gmail e-mail and other cloud-based services.
From its inception, Google has been a compulsive collector, a hoarder, of information about its users, though the company is quick to say it's not personal. For instance, Gmail users get ads — a hefty part of its revenues — based on automated machine reading for e-mail content. "We tell everyone up front about how we match words in mail with ads," says Vint Cerf, Google's chief Internet evangelist. "I don't consider that a violation of privacy."
The plain-spoken, erudite Cerf is well-qualified to wear the mantle of statesman of the Internet, having played a significant role in its very invention decades ago. Since joining Google six years ago in the "evangelist" role, he's found himself of late explaining and defending Google's practices related to privacy — particularly after last year's privacy blow-ups.
Google has perennially faced criticism for its massive data-collection practices from privacy advocates such as Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), among others. But perhaps nothing stirred up a storm as much as when the search giant last year admitted it had collected — by mistake, it says, for three years — information on open Wi-Fi networks when its Google Street View cars with mounted cameras were riding around neighborhoods in countries around the world to capture geographic data.
That touched off class-action lawsuits, a U.S. Federal Trade Commission investigation (closed last October with the agency declining to take action) and actions by regulatory authorities in Europe, especially, calling Google to account.