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Is there a Google trap? Data portability vs. accountability

Data portability does not necessarily equal data accountability.I often note Google CEO Eric Schmidt is Google’s top cheerleader; Google blogger Matt Cutts seems to be a formidable runner-up.
Written by Donna Bogatin, Contributor on

Data portability does not necessarily equal data accountability.

I often note Google CEO Eric Schmidt is Google’s top cheerleader; Google blogger Matt Cutts seems to be a formidable runner-up.

At his “personal” blog, Googler Cutts, head of the Google Webspam team, has been giving props to fellow Googlers this 2007:

Not trapping users’ data = GOOD
I was happy about Eric Schmidt’s quote from the Web 2.0 conference last year. He spoke against trapping users’ data so that they can’t get to it. I love that Eric said this.

Estimating Webmaster skew in Alexa metrics
Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, used several folks’ logs (including mine) as a baseline to estimate the skew in Alexa due to the self-selection bias of webmasters or SEOs installing the Alexa toolbar. The results are really interesting. 

Better click tracking with Auto-tagging
When Google wrote a 17 page white paper about flaws in click fraud studies, how many people here read it from start to finish? If you didn’t get a chance to read it back then, you’re in luck. Shuman Ghosemajumder, a product manager at Google, summarizes the high-order bits in two posts. 

This week, Cutts cited head Googler Schmidt, sharing:

When users get what they want from you quickly and easily, they’re more likely to come back next time. (Shh. Don’t tell anyone else this vital secret.) Part of that is feeling that they aren’t “trapped”–that they can leave you behind if they want.

Can Google users really feel data secure in leaving Google behind if they want though?

Cutts itemized a litany of Google products and services aiming to show all the ways “Google lets you access your data.”

Gmail, Search, Google Calendar, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Talk, Google Reader, Blogger, Google Groups… 

Cutts starts with Gmail because “this one’s easy”:

Google provides free POP access so that anyone can fetch their email out of Gmail.

Cutts is not precise, however, about what is actually being “fetched,” and what remains steadfastly within the Google systems. 

Same imprecision with Cutts’ Search example: 

Search. If you sign in with your Google account to search, Google can offer not only personalized search but also let you retrieve your search history. The ability to securely access your search history as an RSS feed is documented in our help pages.

Google’s Privacy Policy pages reinforce that while Google may tout data “portability,” the Google user data Cloud remains, for all practical purposes, impenetrable for users.

Cutts nevertheless confidently concludes:

Okay, so looking down this list, it looks like Google does pretty well in offering open access to your data, at least for all the important services that I checked. If you know of some way that Google doesn’t let you download your data, please feel free to mention it. I like that Eric said this, because it’s a really nice precedent to set.

Google may enable downloading of user data, but does it really offer users “open access” to, and control of, user data? Not according to the Google privacy policies.

Google GMail privacy policy:

Residual copies of deleted messages and accounts may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our offline backup systems.

Google umbrella privacy policy:

Accessing and updating personal information
When you use Google services, we make good faith efforts to provide you with access to your personal information and either to correct this data if it is inaccurate or to delete such data at your request if it is not otherwise required to be retained by law or for legitimate business purposes. We ask individual users to identify themselves and the information requested to be accessed, corrected or removed before processing such requests, and we may decline to process requests that are unreasonably repetitive or systematic, require disproportionate technical effort, jeopardize the privacy of others, or would be extremely impractical (for instance, requests concerning information residing on backup tapes), or for which access is not otherwise required. In any case where we provide information access and correction, we perform this service free of charge, except if doing so would require a disproportionate effort.

Google may allow users to manipulate their data offline, but it does not put forth any absolute guarantee that users are able to modify, correct and/or permanently delete their data from the Google systems.

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