Does Google Have Data Monopoly?

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Mimes who pretended to gather strangers’ personal information and free ice cream were part of a consumer group's message Wednesday that Google has too much information about its users.


Washington, D.C. – infoZine – Scripps Howard Foundation Wire – Consumer Watchdog sponsored the activities in advance of a Senate hearing where Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, defended the company’s use of information and said the company was not violating antitrust laws.

“Google has a monopoly over our information and how we use it,” John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director, said. “You should be in control of your own personal data.”

The group has released three videos recently depicting an animated Schmidt handing out free ice cream wearing “Wi-Spy” glasses.

The glasses are an allusion to Google Street View Cars that were collecting data from unsecured wireless networks as they took street view images. The company says it collected the data accidentally and has since corrected the problem.

photo: John Simpson
John Simpson, left, tells Tiffany and Eric Hardgrave (and baby Coco) that, although Google offers an array of free products, they may come at the cost of personal information. Simpson is with Consumer Watchdog, which held activities Wednesday to raise awareness about the issue. SHFWire photo by reporter Hope Rurik

The group began handing out ice cream sandwiches and information cards at 10 a.m. Wednesday in advance of the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“We are a serious policy operation,” Simpson said. “But I think to make a point you have to bring it to the public.”

Although foot traffic was low in the residential area four blocks from the Capitol where the ice cream truck parked, a few passersby did stop.

Chris Hardgrave, of Washington, said that, although his concern about his personal information isn’t at the forefront of his mind when he’s online, it’s definitely there.

His wife, Tiffany Hardgrave, said she’s noticed advertisements home in on her interests after performing specific searches.

“It’s disturbing when you look up baby gear and then get ads on baby gear,” she said, as she held her 10-month-old daughter, Coco.

Simpson said there are some benefits to the kinds of data cataloging Google and other online companies do, but giving information to third parties is not one of them.

Seeing book recommendations after buying a book on Amazon, Simpson said, might be helpful, but Consumer Watchdog is advocating for legislation that would create a “do not track” option to prevent data use by third parties.

Those behavioral ads can be detrimental depending on what a consumer is searching for, Simpson said.

He said one teenage girl who was searching for weight-loss advice began seeing weight-loss ads alongside her browser, which he said made her depressed.

The same type of behavioral advertising can be used to target products or financial services to particular groups.

“You might get a deal or offer that someone next to you doesn’t,” Simpson said. “And there’s no transparency on why that happened.”

Consumer Watchdog’s mimes, dressed in white track suits and wearing Wi-Spy glasses followed staffers leaving the Dirksen Senate Office Building dining area, pretending to collect data from individuals as they walked. Most of the staffers hurried by the mimes.

Prompted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Schmidt defended his company’s policies on handling user information.

“We have a very detailed privacy policy on how we behave with users’ data, and there have been a number of companies suggested to us over the years that would, in our view, misuse private data and we’ve said, ‘no,’ to those,” Schmidt testified. “It’s very important that the history of people’s searches, where they are, what they do is not used without their permission in those advertising products. I think you’ll find Google will be one of the exemplars on this issue.”

The record on the hearing will remain open for another week. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he intends to submit additional questions to Schmidt on data use.

Simpson attended the crowded hearing. Asked if he was swayed by Schmidt’s remarks, Simpson replied simply: “No.

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