British MP David Davis, Google, and Setting the Record Straight

British MP David Davis, Google, and Setting the Record Straight: “We were surprised and disappointed to open the Times newspaper today and find a vitriolic column on Google and our record on privacy, from Conservative Member of Parliament David Davis. Responding to speculation in the Times several weeks ago that the Conservative party was in favour of giving patients the ability to transfer their medical records to private companies, Mr Davis decided to launch an extraordinary attack on Google, riddled with misleading statements. Of course, Mr Davis didn’t ask us first for our comments or to check his facts before going to press.

Mr Davis’ argument is based on something of a straw man, given that Google Health, our health records product, is only available in the US, and we have no immediate plans to bring it to other countries. But given that he goes on to attack our Street View product as a ‘high-handed’ intrusion on privacy, assert that we do not respect European privacy law, argue we have entered into ‘an amoral deal with China,’ and attribute our economic success to ‘legally unfettered use of personal data’, we wanted to set the record straight.
Allegation: Google is ‘hostile to privacy.’

We were the first company in our industry to anonymise information when people conduct searches. We took the US government to court when we were asked to hand over large amounts of data to them. Like all of our products, Street View was built from the ground up to respect user privacy. The imagery is not real time. We automatically blur faces and vehicle number plates, and we make it easy for people with concerns to have their homes removed from Street View if they wish. In the months since Street View launched in the UK, tens of millions of people have found it a useful and interesting tool, whether for exploring a tourist destination, finding a restaurant or checking driving directions.

Allegation: Google claims that European privacy legislation ‘does not apply to it.’

For a company that supposedly ignores European laws, we did not launch Google Street View in the UK until we had the green light from the Information Commissioner! ‘Google Street View does not contravene the Data Protection Act,’ said David Evans, the Commissioner’s Senior Data Protection Practice Manager, ‘and, in any case, it is not in the public interest to turn the digital clock back.’

Allegation: Google entered an ‘amoral deal’ with China.

As we said when we launched, it wasn’t a step we took lightly, but we felt we were doing it for the right reasons – to bring more information to more people. Where Chinese regulations require us to remove sensitive information from our search results we disclose this to users – which is not standard practice in China.
Allegation: Google makes its money from ‘exploiting its customers’ private data for commercial ends.’

Google makes the vast majority of its revenue by providing users with free services and serving ads targeted to what the user has searched for or has read. This does not involve selling user data or exposing it in any way. When we launched interest based advertising we did so only after putting users in control of the information collected about them, as we make clear in our user FAQ. In addition, we do not use categories defined by European privacy laws as ‘sensitive’ such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or health when showing ads.
If managed and used responsibly, the free services Google offers can be of tremendous civic benefit. We’ve developed a tool called ‘Flu Trends’, which offers an early warning system for flu outbreaks based on the anonymous actions of millions of people searching for symptoms. Relief agencies depend on Google Earth images after natural disasters like tsunamis or hurricanes and Indian farmers leverage our topographical maps to help with flood management.

We’re proud of our track record of protecting user privacy. We work hard to make sure our users understand what data we collect and how we use it, because we are committed to transparency and user choice. The important work of education is made more difficult by polemicists who abuse the truth. We are happy to debate our privacy record or policies anytime, but we’d rather that debate was based on fact not fiction.

Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel

(Via European Public Policy Blog.)

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