Life In A Fishbowl

Computer keyboard and monitors on texture, partial graphic 1999/7/12
Last month Elinor Mills, columnist for CNET's "googled" Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Not surprisingly, Ms. Mills quickly found Mr. Schmidt's net worth, how much money he made from selling Google stock, the town he lives in and that he once hosted a fund raising dinner for a presidential candidate.

She disclosed this information in her July 14 column and last week reported that "Google representatives have instituted a policy of not talking with reporters until July 2006 in response to privacy issues raised by a previous story."

The implication being that Google is punishing CNET for its naughty reporting behavior. Ms. Mills disclosed the information to make a point. Google has links to an enormous amount of information about a great many people.

Google has declined to comment on the story.

I can't figure out what all the fuss is about. There wasn't anything in this article that wasn't already available to anyone else who took the time to look. As CEO of a public company, much of Mr. Schmidt's financial information, by law, must be disclosed to the public. The same is true of large political contributions. Where he lives is also public information. What's more, what people pay for their houses is usually available form public sources.

For more on the issue of personal information on the Internet, click here to listen to Larry Magid's interview with Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The article also went on to discuss other information that Google knows about many of its users. Mills was absolutely correct in pointing out that Google stores incoming and outgoing email from everyone that uses its Gmail e-mail service, but that's obvious.

The whole idea of Gmail is to store your mail on Google's service as a convenience to users. That's what I like about it. Google plans to make money on the service by displaying ads based on the content of the mail but that, too, is made clear to users.

Google also offers an optional personalized search service that keeps track of users' searches and offers other services that store information about its users.

But there's nothing unique about a company storing personal information. The same is true with Yahoo, Microsoft Network or any other company that offers personalized Web-based services.

I store my investment portfolio on which is part of MSN Money. Does that mean that Bill Gates can find out how much money I have and where I park it? Absolutely. Will he? I don't think so. It would bore him to tears. Besides, Microsoft, along with Google, Yahoo and other responsible companies, has a privacy policy that limits what they can do with that information.

On it's privacy statement at its Gmail site, Google acknowledges that it maintains copies of your messages but says that "Google employees do not access the content of any mailboxes unless you specifically request them to do so … or if required by law, to maintain our system, or to protect Google or the public."

Like other responsible companies, it also states that it will "never rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission."