Google CEO Eric Schmidt is the latest Silicon Valley CEO to draw ire after suggesting that folks seeking privacy might not want to look to the Internet to find it.
"I think judgment matters," Schmidt said, appearing on CNBC (see video below). "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."
In some senses, Schmidt was merely stating the truth about the U.S. law as it currently stands. However his "maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place" comments, in particular, seem to have raised the hackles of privacy advocates and others.
"That was Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, telling you exactly what he thinks about your privacy," Mozilla Director of Community Development Asa Dotzler said on his personal blog, referring to the CNBC comments. "There is no ambiguity, no 'out of context' here. Watch the video."
To be fair, that Patriot Act and other laws apply just as much to Microsoft as it does to Google. Still, I think Dotzler's posting raises some interesting issues. Plus, it's particularly noteworthy that a Mozilla worker is willing to raise the issue given how the lion's share of Mozilla's revenue comes from the Google traffic generated from Mozilla's search bar.
The difference, in my opinion, isn't that Microsoft is somehow subject to different laws than Google, or even that it would behave differently in the face of a government challenge (both companies kowtow in China, for example). Rather, the two companies seem to have a different approach toward privacy issues.
Google's attitude tends to focus on the great benefits that open information can, and often does have. Plus, of course, its stance is an outgrowth of the fact that Google has built its business around gaining revenue by doing the best job of organizing that information.
That shows up in all kinds of ways. Mozilla Developer Relations Director Christopher Blizzard noted in a Twitter posting that sites users visit in Chrome get sent to Google.
"Everyone knows that every site you visit and all address bar searches in Chrome go to Google, right?" Blizzard wrote. (I sent an e-mail to Mozilla seeking its corporate take on things, but did not immediately get a response.)
Microsoft's approach, meanwhile, stems no less from its economic interest, but its zeal is tempered by years of heavy regulation and consumer backlash.
These differences in attitudes, and shifting tides in the center of power in the tech industry, I expect to be major issues in the coming years as regulators and consumers decide where to place their attention.
That said, Schmidt is hardly the first to point out that the idea of privacy on the Internet might be outmoded. "You already have zero privacy. Get over it," former Sun CEO Scott McNealy famously intoned, drawing many of the same criticisms.
Obviously, privacy advocates argue that protections must extend to the Internet. In a blog posting, security expert Bruce Schneier makes a passionate argument, although I think it is interesting that he digs up an essay from 2006 to make his reply.
"Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance," Schneier wrote. "We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need."
So what do you think? Is privacy a basic human need, or a quaint, outdated notion, or is it, paradoxically, both of those things?