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Despite popularly, Google under fire for privacy issues

By DAVE GUSSOW
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2003


Type "phone book" into the Google search engine and about 4.5-million results turn up. Directories, reverse directories, just about every type of phone information you can imagine is listed.

Type your phone number into Google, and there's a good chance your name and address will appear along with a link to a map showing anyone who asks how to get to your front door.

For admirers, it's another innovation for the online search tool that has become an international phenomenon since its start in 1999. Google's Web site (www.google.com) generates 112-million searches a day, according to the online newsletter Search Engine Watch, compared with 42-million for the older service Yahoo (www.yahoo.com).

But some critics are starting to wonder whether Google knows too much about all of us.

A site called Google-Watch.org nominated Google for a Big Brother award, calling it a "privacy time bomb" that collects too much personal data on its users and does too little to protect it. Ultimately, Google didn't win that dubious honor, and its defenders say there's little to back up the allegations.

If nothing else, the flap underscores that Google has grown from a plucky startup with a quirky name to a major force on the Internet.

Over the years it has added features, such as newsgroup, news and shopping directories, and partners, such as America Online and Amazon that use Google's services. It has become so popular that its name has become a verb, as in "I googled for . . ."

Google also has become a target for competitors. Yahoo, which has been using Google technology to help power its own searches, last month bought Inktomi, a search-engine specialist, for about $280-million. There's speculation that Yahoo eventually wants to jettison Google as a partner so it can concentrate on catching up to it as a competitor.

Last week, Yahoo rolled out a beefed-up search engine that it says will be easier to use than Google and find more relevant information. Now a search on Yahoo.com for "Tampa weather" immediately calls up a forecast, not just links to weather-related sites. And Yahoo's ads are becoming less intrusive, more like Google's.

Even Microsoft has said it plans to improve its online search features to better compete with Google.

Google's key to success has been its automated search system, which amounts to something of a constant popularity poll of the Web. When a user enters a query, Google provides Web sites ranked according to how often they're linked from other sites. Most of the time, for most people, that zeros in on sites likely to be useful from the millions of pages on the Web.

But this instant popularity contest can miss useful but little-known Web sites.

That's the prime complaint of Daniel Brandt of San Antonio, Texas. He runs www.NameBase.org, a reference site that is a database of names. He doesn't think Google plays fair with nonprofit sites such as his.

"We're not big enough for Google," Brandt said, adding that the search engine's technology provides an index of only half his content. "All the tendencies are going against us. It was time to take on someone, and Google was the biggest and the least interested in commenting on public policy issues."

So he started Google-Watch and listed nine complaints, ranging from how long Google's cookies linger on a user's hard drive before expiring to what the company might be doing with personal data to the genuinely conspiratorial. (Google's hiring of someone who once worked for the National Security Agency inspired this headline on one of Brandt's complaints: "Google hires spooks.") Brandt's the one who nominated Google for the Big Brother award.

In an article posted this month, Danny Sullivan, editor of the Search Engine Watch industry newsletter and one of the top experts in the field, did a point-by-point analysis of the Big Brother allegations (www.searchenginewatch.com/sereport/03/04-bigbro.html). The company told Sullivan it does not gather any personally identifiable information. Sullivan's conclusions on the charges: They were baseless.

Brandt's charges on Google and privacy also were shot down by Parry Aftab, who among other things is executive director of WiredSafety.org and a member of the board of Truste (www.truste.org), a nonprofit that helps Web sites develop privacy policies.

"Google is no worse than any of the others, and in many cases it's better than the others," Aftab said. "There's a whole lot of stuff out on the Internet about each of us that we don't know about."

Between 1998 and 2000, before privacy policies were tightened, Aftab said, "Sites were collecting a lot more (personal data) than they should have because they could." That information is here to stay.

She recommends that people search for their names online, in a variety of combinations such as first name, last name, then last name, first name, to check for problems ranging from pranks to ID theft.

Meanwhile, Google's 2-year-old phone book feature has become the subject of an e-mail campaign in recent weeks designed to warn people about it and encourage them to remove themselves from the list.

Users can opt out of the Google phone book by clicking on a link below the information and filling out an online form. But the information still will be available on other sites.

"Google is in no way using its technology to 'mine' phone number or address information in some unscrupulous way," the company said via e-mail. "The intent of all of Google's services is to organize and provide publicly available information."

-- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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