Google refusal raises online privacy issue

Faced with a government subpoena to supply users' records, Google finds itself in a no-win situation

Faced with a government subpoena to supply users' records, Google finds itself in a no-win situation

When it comes to defying a government subpoena, Google finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

The Department of Justice has asked a federal judge to force Google to supply records on users' searches, part of the federal government's efforts to support an online pornography law.

As Google defies the government, it could find itself facing serious legal ramifications at a time when the company's stock has slipped, with some analysts pointing to Google's resistance to the subpoena as one of the reasons.

But the alternative is to hand over the information and risk consumer censure for not respecting and protecting its users' privacy.

Google's three main rivals - Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online - have complied with the government's request, claiming that the information turned over does not violate users' privacy.

At a time when more and more people are living their lives online, and facing an era of identity theft and controversy over federal wiretaps, Internet users are seeking reassurance that their every move won't come back to haunt them. And those concerns could ultimately affect which companies they trust with their business.

"From one point of view, what drives a company's reputation is trust," says Kasper Ulf Nielsen, MD of the Reputation Institute. "And that is an issue these companies are facing right now: Can consumers trust these companies to keep their identities safe?"

AOL has not jeopardized its customers' identities, asserts Andrew Weinstein, VP of corporate communications. AOL did not provide everything the government requested. Instead, the company provided a list of terms people searched for, but not the results of those searches or any personally identifiable information on who made the searches.

"That was not information we could provide," adds Weinstein. "We did not want to provide anything that was broad and far-reaching into customer information. We have always had a strong focus on user privacy. We would have serious concerns about any request for large pools of user data."

Microsoft and Yahoo declined to comment, pointing to statements asserting that they, too, protect their users' privacy, and did not provide any personally identifiable information.

The question may finally be which portal do consumers think is most unshakably virtuous when it comes to their personal info. So some have speculated that Google's stance, while in keeping with its corporate culture, is also a savvy PR move that positions the company as the defender of online privacy.

"Google's resistance to the DOJ subpoena is great PR," says David Schatsky, SVP of research at Jupiter Research. "But the other search engines' cooperation with the government, along with other recent spying by the government, will probably signal to consumers that their behavior will never be entirely free of government snooping."

Google released a statement from Nicole Wong, its associate general counsel, asserting that the government's "demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to, and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."

But marketing guru Al Ries, now chairman of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries, says it's a no-win situation for Google, facing either the wrath of the government or its users. But no company ever has a 100% favorable rating, and he doesn't think the story has generated enough attention yet to hurt any of the players' reputations.

"If this starts to generate negative publicity, and more people become aware of it, then it could hurt the other companies," says Ries.

Sean Garrett, a partner with tech public affairs firm 463 Communications, points out in his agency's blog that the public is reminded on a daily basis how fragile their privacy is to begin with.

"The companies can make reasonable arguments on all sides, but these issues of privacy are not going to go away," asserts Garrett. "There's no silver bullet here. There's no playbook."

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