Google, Facebook Duke It Out With Microsoft Over Online Privacy


Fair or not, Google and Facebook are perceived in some circles as privacy-trampling behemoths hell-bent on hoovering up every last bit of useful data from users' online perambulations.

Microsoft and Mozilla, meanwhile, were quick to support Do Not Track (DNT), a yet-to-be-standardized privacy protection mechanism that lets users opt out of being tracked online.

In a Wednesday panel discussion at RSA Conference 2013, the four companies, which represent both sides of the heated debate over online privacy, gathered to hash out the best path forward, agreeing that better communication is needed to stem popular hysteria.

 

[Related: Facebook Launches New Social Search Engine]

Facebook, with over one billion users, exerts enormous influence over personal privacy online, as evidenced by the firestorm of controversy that erupts with every new feature that's added to the service.

Erin Egan, chief privacy officer at Facebook, said the company works hard to make sure users understand exactly how their data is being used. Facebook holds regular meetings between its security, legal and marketing teams and closely examines the privacy implications of every new product and feature prior to launch.

"Trust is core to our business," Egan said during the session. "If people don't trust the service, they're not going to connect and share."

Location-based services make online privacy issues even more opaque, and Facebook is in the process of hammering out its strategy for clarifying them, Egan noted. "We're looking right now at what our companywide mobile approach is going to be, and how we relate to all the disclosures users are getting around location-based services," she said.

Google is drawing growing scrutiny from world governments over its data collection practices, and Microsoft has been lobbying hard for U.S. regulators to rein in the search giant. Keith Enright, chief privacy counsel at Google, believes Google's negative privacy image is unfounded.

"We have led the industry with tools like SSL and Google Dashboard, and we've tried to raise the high-water mark for privacy on the internet," Enright said.

Enright had some choice words for Microsoft's "Scroogled" campaign, which hinges on the notion that Google peeks into Gmail users' emails in order to target them with ads.

"In the same way algorithms can scan data sets for virus code, they can also be used to make contextual ads more relevant. Claiming that this is detrimental to users is misleading and intellectually dishonest," Enright said.

NEXT: Microsoft And The Do Not Track Solution