Watchdog slams Google as 'worst at protecting privacy'

Google ranks worse than any other internet company at protecting the privacy of its users, the Privacy International watchdog group has warned.

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Google ranks worse than any other internet company at protecting the privacy of its users, the Privacy International watchdog group has warned.

The international privacy group also accused Google of engaging in a smear campaign in response to findings released in an interim report, and demanded an apology.

Privacy International's report, based on six months of research, placed Google last among 23 internet companies it examined. Google was the only company to earn the lowest ranking, for "comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy".

Other companies, such as Microsoft and Yahoo rated slightly better that Google. Microsoft was given a rating of four out of six, for "serious lapses in privacy practices". Yahoo was given a ranking of five out of six, for "substantial and comprehensive privacy threats".

"We are aware that the decision to place Google at the bottom of the ranking is likely to be controversial, but throughout our research we have found numerous deficiencies and hostilities in Google's approach to privacy that go well beyond those of other organisations," Privacy International said.

The group cited the large amount of data about users collected by Google and lack of privacy controls. "Google's increasing ability to deep-drill into the minutiae of a user's life and lifestyle choices must in our view be coupled with well defined and mature user controls and an equally mature privacy outlook," Privacy International said. "Neither of these elements has been demonstrated."

Privacy International plans to issue a final report in September. Google executives were not available to comment on the report's findings.

But an open letter to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt from Privacy International director Simon Davies accused the company of engaging in a smear campaign in response to the group's findings.

"Two European journalists have independently told us that Google representatives have contacted them with the claim that 'Privacy International has a conflict of interest regarding Microsoft'. I presume this was motivated because Microsoft scored an overall better result than Google in the rankings," Davies wrote.

Google allegedly claimed a conflict of interest existed because one of 70 people on Privacy International's board of advisors is a current Microsoft employee. Davies rejected the charge and listed five critical actions the group has taken against Microsoft, including support for the European Commission's investigation into Microsoft.

"Can I be so bold as to suggest that your company's actions stem from sour grapes that you achieved the lowest ranking amongst the Internet giants?" Davies wrote, demanding an apology from Schmidt.

This is not the first time that Privacy International has raised privacy concerns about Google. In 2004, the group filed a privacy complaint about Google's Gmail service with regulators in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Austria, Australia and Canada, as well as with the European Commission

To date, Google has rejected concerns over the information it gathers and stores about users. Speaking recently in South Korea, Schmidt dismissed privacy concerns over the search giant’s data collection, saying users who were worried about privacy could always choose not to use the company's services. He added that Google deleted information about users after a certain period of time, but did not say how long that period was.

Privacy concerns about Google have also been raised over the company's acquisition of DoubleClick, sparking an investigation by the US Fair Trade Commission.

While Google has taken flack from critics over its privacy policies, the company has acted to protect users in at least one case: in January 2006, Google was the only company to resist a subpoena from the US Department of Justice for a random sampling of 1m web addresses searched for by users.

Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo did not fight the request, which did not seek information that would have identified the users who made the search requests contained in the sample. In the end, Google shared a smaller amount of data with the US government body.

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