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12/11/2009
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Google Douses Privacy Fire

CEO Eric Schmidt's remarks are being taken out of context, the company says.

Recent remarks by Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a CNBC interview have set off a firestorm among privacy advocates.

The controversy has even prompted Asa Dotzler, community development manager for Mozilla -- which depends on Google for revenue -- to recommend Microsoft's Bing search engine as an alternative to Google.

"People are treating Google like their most trusted friend," said CNBC's Maria Bartiromo in the interview. "Should they be?"

Passing on the opportunity to explain to Bartiromo the difference between trusted friends and multi-billion dollar search advertising companies, Schmidt responded, "I think judgment matters. ...If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines--including Google--do retain this information for some time. And it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

Schmidt's remarks about the availability of search data to law enforcement demands have been seized on by privacy advocates as evidence of overall disregard for privacy on the part of both Schmidt and Google. Divorced from the context of the conversation, his statement sounds to critics like a reiteration of the commonly cited and just as commonly refuted pro-surveillance argument that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear.

"I think that the thing that bothers me most about Google CEO Eric Schmidt's comment is that it makes clear that he simply doesn't understand privacy," said Doztler in a blog post on Thursday. "That a company with so much user data on its servers is led by someone who just doesn't understand privacy is really scary to me and it should be scary to you as well."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation made a similar observation. "Unfortunately, Schmidt's statement makes it seem as if Google, a company that claims to care about privacy, is not even concerned enough to understand basic lessons about privacy and why it's important on so many levels -- from protection against shallow embarrassments to the preservation of freedom and human rights," the cyber rights group said on Thursday.

Google says such criticism takes Schmidt's remarks out of context.

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