Google CEO Eric Schmidt is getting a lot of flak for a statement he made about privacy in a CNBC interview. Here is the quote that many people are upset about:
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
Wow! What an incredible attitude, right? I mean, if Google thinks that only perverts and terrorists need to worry about privacy, then they have totally gone over to the side of evil.
But listen to the whole interview, and read what else he had to say, and what the question was that he was answering:
Q: People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?
A: I think judgement matters… If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. But 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. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities.”
That puts the outrageous statement in a different light. The word “it” refers to treating Google as your trusted friend, not to having something to hide.There might be many reasons to distrust Google, or to expect them to do better. But not on the basis of this extremely poorly-worded, but legitimate and even insightful answer.
All he is saying is that laws like the US Patriot Act exist. The UK Official Secrets Act exists. The Chinese government exists. Google must obey the government where they operate. It can be argued whether they obey too enthusiastically or should use their influence to change policies, but refusing to obey the law is not an option. Search engines and ISPs keep information to provide better service and comply with the law. He is saying that given that governments have these powers, you cannot rely on someone like Google – or anyone else online – to protect you completely. So if you have something to hide, you shouldn’t be blabbing about it online. That seems like an un-outrageous statement.
This clip tells me that Eric Schmidt needs media training more than that Google has a privacy problem. It is far too easy to take this quote out of context and make it sound like something outrageous, as many commentators have been doing. But talking about the limits of what Google can do to protect you is perfectly legitimate. So this was a stupid, bonehead thing to say, because the bald statement in the first quote is clearly not what Schmidt meant to say. Now just like Al Gore has to continually explain what he really said (it was not that he “invented the internet“), Schmidt will spend the rest of his career clarifying what he really meant to say. There would have been no problem if he had said:
If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be talking about it online in the first place.
But CEOs of major corporations with a high profile shouldn’t need a PR flunky or analyst/blogger to come along behind him insisting “What he meant to say was… ” In this area certainly, we should expect better of Google and Eric Schmidt.
Gartner’s John Pescatore also had a comment on this incident.