Parliament grills Google on privacy

Google has faced a grilling from British MPs on a joint committee over their own privacy concerns, proving evasive over its powers to protect personal information.

Against a backdrop of increasing worries about personal data online, representatives from Google, Facebook and Twitter squirmed under questioning.

As part of an ongoing inquiry from Lords and Commons members into privacy, MPs railed at the lack of clarity with using personal information, as well as an inability to protect the privacy of public figures. We suspect they are more concerned with the latter.

The trio managed to largely fend off questions from the committee about their business models which rely on data from its users to provide information for advertisers.  However, despite insistence from all three that they were not selling information directly to advertisers, members of the joint committee expressed concerns over increased commercial pressures in the future.

It was claimed that personal information being obtained “with a commercial edge to it” is only likely to increase with time, with personal protections potentially “eroded as commercial pressures increase”.

Of course, Google’s legal eagles are well briefed on such concerns and it was reiterated that its ‘ads preferences’ feature was heavily promoted, and could easily be adjusted or turned off. Indeed all of the firms did their best to appear sincere in response to questioning, with Lord Allan of Hallam, Director of Policy in Europe, Facebook, saying that “our business can’t function without trust”.

Indeed, the committee gave the representatives a platform to discuss some of the many positives they have brought with promotion of freedom of speech in various countries.

Strong doubts remained over the use of data, with Google recently been harangued for its decision to further step up its use of personal information with heavily integrated features on its accounts.

Google also faced a tough ride from the committee over its lack of clarity about taking down photos of uniform-loving party boy Max Moseley. The MP repeatedly demanded a straight answer from slippery associate general counsel at Google, Daphne Keller.

Irate MPs demanded answers from Keller over the possibility that all of the images of Moseley’s infamous nocturnal activities could be taken down automatically. It was Moseley’s assertion in court that it was proven possible, it was said, and Google was taken to task for not complying. 

Keller was unclear as to whether such a move could be possible for Google in a technical sense. “This isn’t something that exists and we cannot just throw a switch,” she said. “Someone has to go out and identify the URLs…it is a decision for a person to make”.

Keller contended that an algorithm that could down all pictures without human arbitration would not necessarily be a good idea, and quite rightly too. But the committee’s idea boiled down to: “Isn’t it the case that you can do it but do not want to?”

“Are you really telling us that a company such as yours cannot develop technology that could delete the information permanently?” questioned one of the committee members, noting that it was possible for Google to find information easily.

Google’s policy and comms VP DJ Collins told MPs: “Even if we decide to remove something it will still exist on the internet itself”.

Whether the Google VP has one eye on a European Commission antitrust hearing and was trying to downplay the dominant position of the search engine is unclear.  But he was keen to point out that there were other ways to access information on the internet, though stopped short of giving Bing a plug.

“Even as successful as the three companies here have become we are not the whole of the internet,” Collins said.