Executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, once said, “The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”
Professor of computer science David Dailey said that this kind of information is the primary source of revenue for companies like Google, which sell the information for marketing purposes.
“Google would not have a business if they could not analyze data of that sort,” Dailey said. “At the same time, they’ve become an almost indispensable utility. Though we could compel them not to keep track of IP addresses after the information is delivered, then there would be no financial incentive for them to stay in business. They have to be able to sell something in exchange for the wonderful information they’re giving everybody.”
Dailey said that the new system of a single user identification for all of Google’s services links Internet activity to a person rather than to an IP address.
“We like it because it’s user friendly,” Dailey said. “On the other hand, once you’re logged in to one of those services, you’re no longer an anonymous IP address. Now your searches are known to be affiliated with a person, and that gives a lot less privacy to what you’re doing.”
Dailey compared public opinion on privacy to the swinging of a pendulum when speaking about the Patriot Act and changes in how we view privacy since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The fact that Congress is now basically clamoring for some kind of new privacy legislation indicates that the pendulum has swung somewhat in the opposite direction,” Dailey said. “For a while, following 9-11, the pendulum was definitely in favor of less privacy because it means more security, but now I believe the pendulum has swung back in the opposite direction.”
According to Dailey, the pendulum will continue to swing, possibly in response to more drastic events in the future.
“Usually what happens with these kinds of things is that there is some intense abuse of power that happens, then laws are written,” Dailey said. “Laws are written too strong, and there’s some kind of equilibrium that follows.”
Amy Walters, an assistant professor of communication, said that the major cause for concern is that Google is a private corporation whose services have become so widely used that the average consumer thinks of it as a public utility.
“The problem is that in order to use any Google product, you must agree to this policy,” Walters said. “Unfortunately, Google is the de facto search engine for everyone in the entire world. It’s a matter of something that has become what we would think of as public domain is being seized back by a corporation. A lot of the things we do online, we call utilities. But they’re not. They’re privately owned.”
Walters recalled a student saying that if a user doesn’t want to agree to Google’s policies, they needn’t use Google’s services.
“And there’s some truth to that,” Walters said. “But at what point, for example, does the invention of electricity move from something that’s used by a few wealthy people, become something that everybody is using? Does that make it a utility? On the other hand, the good news is the other search engines may actually benefit from this and be able to become competitive as a result of other people becoming dissatisfied by Google’s policies.”
Walters explained that Internet technology has advanced too quickly for legislation to keep up with it.
“The court system in our country operates extremely slowly,” Walters said. “And the Internet got out of hand so quickly that there was no way for the legislative system to keep up. People didn’t even understand what the thing was, let alone how to make reasonable laws and regulations to wrap around this thing. And every time they think they have it, it’s two years ahead of them.”
Unless legislation can keep up, it may always be up to Internet users to be responsible for their online activity.
“My recommendation would be when you do a search or when you engage in some activity online, just think about this question,” Walters said. “Are you going to be comfortable if it comes back to you someday? Unfortunately, everything on the Internet is written in stone. Your whole life is written in stone. You can never take it back.”