All in a blur

commentary Are we losing sight of what's appropriate in dealing with personal information?I must say, I've never been one to get very panicky over certain privacy issues that so often pop up in the IT news.



commentary Are we losing sight of what's appropriate in dealing with personal information?

I must say, I've never been one to get very panicky over certain privacy issues that so often pop up in the IT news.

But I'm beginning to wonder if I might have to change that a bit.

Two months ago I wrote about RFID, and how I thought people were going a little overboard in worrying whether Gillette was monitoring our razor-buying habits (they weren't) or whether Benetton was keeping track of what articles of clothing customers were buying (they weren't). When a few readers wrote in to say that I wasn't looking seriously enough at the potential threats, I responded saying I felt that common sense regarding personal privacy would always prevail.

Then, a couple weeks ago, came Google's Gmail offer of 1GB of storage for Web-based e-mails. The catch -- and what started a long-running storm of controversy -- is the fact that Google reserves the right to scan the e-mail content of those taking advantage of the service to help with more targeted advertising.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with this, considering that Google has been upfront about the conditions of the deal. It's not a service I'd use for confidential corporate communications, but for general contact with friends and family it would do the trick. We're going to be subjected to ads with free Web-mail in any case; if they're targeted at me, I'm not going to complain.

But some of the detractors bring up one important point: even though the conditions are strictly defined now, what might happen in the future? One gigabyte worth of e-mail will last most users many years, and who's to say Google will always be the entity in control of all that correspondence?

The competition heating up between Yahoo! and Google has moved that niggling worry up to a concern. After leap-frogging each other on e-mail features, Google is now playing catch-up with Yahoo! on "groups" offerings. (Google now not only provides access to Usenet discussion groups, it also lets users create and manage public or private mailing lists, as Yahoo Groups has been doing for quite a while.)

We're going to be subjected to ads with free web-mail in any case; if they're targeted at me, I'm not going to complain.
But the latest battle over blogs is the most concerning.

According to The Washington Post, on the same day that Google announced a relaunch of its Blogger site, the company started its own "Google Blog". Unfortunately, they didn't follow the rules. Authors from Google's executive team posted items anonymously and changed content that had already been published. Regular bloggers were not happy.

Personally, I found the Google response even more disturbing. In a post that went up in answer to the complaints, Google's Doug Edwards said, "We started our blog with a post about recruiting and didn't sign it. Then we changed it once it was up. You just don't do that with a blog, according to half the Google Staff and all the Blogger folk."

OK, they get one point for acknowledging the error of their ways to "all the Blogger folk", but what about the "half the Google Staff" who didn't think there was anything wrong? Minus 10.

Not that blogs are going to be of any significant business concern in the near future, but this shows that things are not always as stable and unchangeable as one would like.

Will your 1GB of mail always only be handled in the way described in the current terms and conditions? One can hope.

But with each small encroachment into what's acceptable, and each "honest mistake" in handling information and content online, the line between what's acceptable behaviour and what's not gets more blurred. And that's beginning to make me worry.

What's your biggest privacy worry on the Web? Write in and let me know. All responses will be kept in strictest confidence... maybe.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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