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9/14/2007
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Google Calls For Global Privacy Standards

Executives with the search engine want to start a discussion about international privacy standards which work to protect everyone's privacy on the Internet.

Privacy today is the exception; Google on Friday called for privacy to be the rule.

In a post on the Google Public Policy blog on Friday, Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Counsel, said that privacy standards need to be harmonized worldwide.

"As I've noted before, everyone has a right to privacy online -- and governments have an obligation to keep their citizens safe," said Fleischer. "Yet despite the international scope of even the most ordinary Internet activity, the majority of the world's countries offer virtually no privacy standards to their citizens and businesses. And even if every country in the world did have its own privacy standards, this alone would not be sufficient to protect user privacy, given the Web's global nature. Data may move across six or seven countries, even for very routine Internet transactions. It is not hard to see why privacy standards need to be harmonized and updated to reflect this reality."

As Fleischer notes, concern about the ease with which data can be disseminated around the world and the impact that access to that data has on privacy isn't new. In 1980, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued guidelines that laid out fair information practices.

Former Sun CEO Scott McNealy's now infamous declaration twenty years later that "privacy is dead" hints at how effective the OECD guidelines have been. Just because there are guidelines -- we have both 1948's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ongoing human rights violations around the globe -- doesn't mean those guidelines will be widely respected.

Nonetheless, Google deserves credit for trying. Having fought the U.S. Department of Justice's demand for search data when its competitors caved and having agreed to anonymize search records after 18 months, the company clearly isn't deaf to privacy concerns, even if it hasn't matched bolder moves from Ask.com.

"...Google is calling for a discussion about international privacy standards which work to protect everyone's privacy on the Internet," said Fleischer. "These standards must be clear and strong, mindful of commercial realities, and in line with oftentimes divergent political needs. Moreover, global privacy standards need to reflect technological realities, taking into account how quickly these realities can change."

Though Google may grasp the technological realities of privacy better than most, its call for discussions about international privacy standards suggests a naive attitude about the ease with which "divergent political needs" can be brought "in line." Things which diverge, by definition, don't line up. Harmonizing privacy rights across U.S., Europe, China, Russia, and the rest of the nations of the world might well be compared to herding cats with a lightning rod during a thunderstorm. It won't be quick or easy.

And when it comes to dealing with difficult issues like censorship -- which is closely related to privacy -- Google, like Microsoft and Yahoo, has found it easier to pass the buck to the U.S. government than deal with the issue itself. All three have asked Uncle Sam to treat censorship as a trade barrier, and to press censorious countries to be more open, so they don't have to.

Perhaps privacy rights will prove easier to establish on a global basis than free speech rights. But more likely, the nations of the world, and the businesses operating therein, will manage, at best, a formal agreement to disagree.

Let the talks begin.

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