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.

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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

Microsoft, which introduced Do Not Track in IE9 and turned it on by default in IE 10 and Windows 8, is pushing the envelope on privacy online.

Brendon Lynch, chief privacy officer at Microsoft, said this is a natural progression of a strategy that began when the software first began implementing technology to control cookies over a decade ago.

"People are caring more about privacy as more data is being generated about their activity online," Lynch said. "Privacy is increasingly becoming a feature."

Mozilla uses Do Not Track in Firefox because tracking technology is moving faster than users' ability to understand it, said Alex Fowler, chief privacy officer at Mozilla. "Our No. 1 objective is, how do we mitigate surprise? What things are users not aware of when using features or services?" he said.

When it comes to cookie blocking, Mozilla is trying to find middle ground that accounts for the needs of vendors and end users.

"We're seeing an incredible expansion of money and talent to refine the [tracking] ecosystem, but we're not seeing the same investment in user-facing controls," Fowler said. "We can't just sit back and allow the industry to continue ignoring this core component of users' online experience."

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) hasn't yet established a common standard for Do Not Track, and so no enforcement mechanism yet exists.

Google and Facebook aren't crazy about Do Not Track, though Google did add it to Chrome last November, becoming the last major browser maker to do so.

"Until we have an agreed upon standard for what [the Do Not Track] header is going to mean, acknowledging it in some ad hoc way is not going to be consistent with the expectations of users," Google's Enright said during the session.

Facebook uses a social plug-in on various parts of its site, but it's used to personalize content and not for ads. Under Do Not Track, it's unclear if Facebook will be able to continue doing so, according to Egan.

"If we get [Do Not Track], do we not load the plug-in?" she said.

While all four companies were able to cordially examine their differences of opinion during the panel, the complexity of the online privacy debate means it will likely continue inflaming passions for the foreseeable future.