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Google attempts damage control on privacy regulations

Googlers having fun

Google has unveiled its ideas on the regulatory framework of tomorrow in what looks like an attempt to influence legislation and restrict the long-arm of government intervention.

On the whole, the internet players of Silicon Valley have largely been left to do what they want. This is not to say there are no regulations or consumer protections, but the breadth and depth of regulatory red-tape is no-where near the same scale as the telco industry. In airing its ideas on what the regulatory environment of the data economy should look like, Google is seemingly trying to maintain this status quo.

“Today, we’re sharing our view on the requirements, scope, and enforcement expectations that should be reflected in all responsible data protection laws,” said Keith Enright, Chief Privacy Officer at Google. “This framework is based on established privacy frameworks, as well as our experience providing services that rely on personal data and our work to comply with evolving data protection laws around the world.”

The three page document, which you can see here, is largely what you would expect from one of the internet players. Commitments to collect data responsibly, transparency for the user, limitations on collection and usage, offering control to the user, accountability of third-parties and interoperability are all aspects, but this is not what the helpful commentary is about. This is not about protecting the user, it is about Silicon Valley maintaining control of its own destiny.

With the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration evaluating new legislation, the Senate about to start grilling tech executives and the White House preparing meetings with industry, the future is clear. The US Government intends to take a firmer grasp of activities in Silicon Valley, offering a more stringent rulebook and more protections to the consumer. This is not good news for the internet players.

To date, the internet players have made fortunes in the grey areas. There are more freedoms to use personal information and create advertising solutions as these are organizations which have slipped between the regulatory cracks. They have resisted the same rules as telcos, much to the frustration of the traditional communications industry, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. These are different types of businesses, applying the same rules as telcos is the square-peg-round-hole situation. These are businesses which are creating new services and innovating with data in ways some could not imagine, and need the flexibility to do so. That said, they should still be held accountable to regulation.

In releasing its ideas, Google is seemingly practising its own version of damage control. If new rules are on the horizon they’ll need to be influenced. A number of these practises are already in place at Google, meaning the business can continue to generate billions without a huge disruption to operations. That cannot be said its neighbours in Silicon Valley, but this is of little concern to the Do-No-Evilers.

Another interesting aspect to this announcement is perception. The industry has been hit hard by privacy scandals over the last few months, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica saga is the biggest example, though Google has been collecting location data on users who have opted-out; it is far from innocent. In making these suggestions public, Google is putting a friendly face back onto the brand; its helping with the data privacy issue, not compounding it, will be the PR message here.

While this perception of helpfulness will help with its consumer reputation, it will also aid its grilling from the Senate. Enright is one of several executives who have been summoned to testify in front of several politicians to discuss how social media companies work and data privacy is secured. In demonstrating proactive enthusiasm prior to the grilling it might gain some much needed favour after Google left its chair empty during the Senate Intelligence Committee testimony.

The wild-west internet is slowly being swallowed up by the steady progress of regulation. The rules will never get in front of technological advancements, but to protect its billions, Google and its Silicon Valley neighbours will have to put on big smiles to influence rule makers.

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