[A couple things to note: 1. This is a purely personal blog post--like other blogs posts I do, I haven't run it by anyone else at Google. 2. I'm writing it quickly because I have a lot of work to do. If I get something wrong, please let me know and I'll correct it.]
This morning I saw an article in the New York Times with the headline Two-Thirds of Americans Object to Online Tracking:
ABOUT two-thirds of Americans object to online tracking by advertisers — and that number rises once they learn the different ways marketers are following their online movements, according to a new survey from professors at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley.
So naturally I clicked to see who the co-authors were. One of the study’s co-authors was Chris Jay Hoofnagle. Hoofnagle has served as the Senior Counsel and Director of the West Coast Office
of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). You haven’t heard of EPIC? EPIC was the group that in 2004 argued that Gmail should be shut down: “In a letter sent to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer on Monday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center argued that Gmail must be shut down because it ‘represents an unprecedented invasion into the sanctity of private communications.’ ”
I can guess what you’re saying. “That was five years ago. People didn’t know then how useful Gmail was going to be.” Okay, then did you know that EPIC lobbied the government to shut down Google Apps earlier this year? Here’s the article from March 2009:
A privacy advocacy group has asked the Federal Trade Commission to pull the plug on Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and the company’s other Web apps until government-approved “safeguards are verifiably established.”
If the FTC grants the request, hundreds of millions of Internet users would be unable to access their e-mail or documents until the agency’s formidable collection of lawyers in Washington, D.C., became satisfied with the revised applications. The outage would extend to businesses that pay for access to Google Apps.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center submitted the far-reaching request to the FTC in a letter from its director, Marc Rotenberg, on Tuesday.
Most people know that the choice of questions in an study can make a huge difference to the outcome. To fully inform the people who read the study, do I wish Chris Jay Hoofnagle had mentioned his connection to EPIC in the paper’s bio section? Yeah, I kinda do. At least when I checked Techmeme, not a single story mentioned Hoofnagle as a Principal Investigator on the grant and co-author on the study, or Hoofnagle’s connections with EPIC.
I’m sure that EPIC has done plenty of fine work to improve privacy on the web. I certainly disagree with some of their opinions: EPIC may have wanted to shut down Gmail five years ago and wanted to shut down Google Apps earlier this year, but I believe that would be a bad idea. I don’t think a majority of people want their Gmail or Google Apps accounts shut down by the government. And maybe this most recent study will be received as completely impartial–but I wish that Hoofnagle’s connections to EPIC had been disclosed in the bio section.
Don’t get me wrong. I welcome criticism of Google (or other companies’ practices) from all corners of the web. From that criticism it’s important to look for ways to improve. People love (and hate) Google enough to give us passionate criticism, and I truly appreciate the feedback. It’s when Google’s features and products are greeted with indifference or apathy that I’ll really be worried.