5 comments from Google's CEO on privacy

Schmidt may be sinking the company into hot water with his words

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is getting a lot of attention lately. But it's not so much for the company's ubiquitous search engine or any of its other products; it's more for what he has been saying about privacy.

To be clear, privacy is a hot topic these days. Social networking site Facebook has repeatedly found itself in hot water over privacy issues this year. And Google isn't faring much better. Among other things, its Street View service has drawn negative attention for posting images of people's homes for the world to see.

But the people in Google's PR department may be more concerned about what Schmidt is saying about privacy than they are about the way consumers are reacting to Google products and services.

On Monday, for instance, Schmidt raised a new privacy hubbub by saying that if people don't like having their homes photographed for Google Street View, they should "just move." He made the comment during an interview on CNN .

"With Street View, we drive by exactly once, so you can just move," said Schmidt, eliciting uncomfortable laughter from interviewer Kathleen Parker of the show Parker Spitzer. "The point is we only do it once. This is not a monitoring situation."

The Internet was immediately abuzz with blogs and stories about the statement, which Schmidt later tried to explain in an e-mail to Computerworld by saying that it was all a matter of misspeaking.

"All of the attention this has drawn isn't doing Google any good," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "Schmidt is hurting more than he is helping Google. His blunt statements defending Google raise the hackles of privacy advocates, regulators and users alike. He comes off as arrogant and dismissive much of the time, regardless of whether he's right or wrong."

The comment wasn't the first controversial remark Schmidt has made regarding privacy. Here are others:

  • "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," Schmidt said during an interview on CNBC in December 2009.
  • "We know where you are... with your permission. We know where you've been with your permission. We can more or less guess what you're thinking about," he said earlier this month at the Washington Ideas Forum, according to The Atlantic.
  • "There is what I call the creepy line. The Google policy on a lot of things is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it," Schmidt is quoted as saying by The Hill Web site last month during an event at the Newseum in Washington.
  • "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," he said during an August interview with the Wall Street Journal. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." He added that he believes young adults will at some point start changing their names so they can hide from youthful hijinks recorded on social networks.
  • "In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it," Schmidt said at the Techonomy conference in April, according to a ReadWriteWeb blog by Marshall Kirkpatrick.

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group, said making one odd statement after another about users' privacy is not doing the company any favors.

"I swear we could likely do an entire situation comedy featuring Eric Schmidt titled Stupid S*** Google's CEO Says," Enderle said. "I actually think he is a bigger problem [than Street View] because he crosses over issues and makes them worse.... I think Schmidt outlived his usefulness to Google some time ago and it is time to bring someone on board who can solve problems rather than make them worse."

Olds agreed that Schmidt's repeated statements could give people the impression that he doesn't care about users' privacy.

"Schmidt's statements don't seem to give user privacy concerns much, if any, credence," he added. "He basically seems to be saying, 'This is the way things are. Too bad. We'll do what we want. Get used to it.' To many users, that's both an insult and a challenge."

Olds noted that these kinds of statements could catch the attention of regulators and make them take a closer look at how Google is operating.

"Schmidt is an experienced executive and should be better at this," Olds said. "This isn't his first rodeo, and I don't think that media training is the answer to his PR problem. I think he's just tone-deaf on privacy and why users are understandably concerned about it."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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