Google's Eric Schmidt On Data Privacy: The Internet Needs A Delete Button

Your personal data is being over-shared with companies and advertisers. So how much control should you have over your private info?

With so much data being collected about us online, can our offline identities ever be divorced from our web personas? Today, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt offered a simple solution for kids being brought up in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.

"I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name," Schmidt said, with a smile. "Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!'"

Schmidt was being facetious, of course. But Google and its competitors are amassing endless troves of personal user data—tracking everything from browsing history to email to mobile usage—at times controversially. Google has already faced a number of high-profile lawsuits over privacy issues related to targeted advertising and mapping, and is likely to encounter more in the future as products like Google Glass reshape our interactions with technology. Today, at NYU's Stern business school, economist Nouriel Roubini grilled Schmidt about Google's evolving role in personal privacy.

Eric Schmidt

The conversation, which was generally good-natured, took on a slightly serious tone when Roubini pressed Schmidt on what privacy would look like in 10 or 20 years, when smartphones became "stone age technology," replaced by wearable gadgets and perhaps even embedded ones. Roubini described a future when we might embed technology into our eyes or skin that could track, say, our heart rates or other consumption patterns. Even Google Glass is a step in this direction. So what could that data mean for corporations? And what would it mean for users?

"Let me be very clear that Google is not tracking you...it's not doing all these things," Schmidt said, after trying to interject Roubini's question several times, to clarify that this was a hypothetical discussion. "Does everyone get that we're not doing this? He's talking about a different company or set of companies."

Schmidt then explained that Roubini's assessment of the future was not one he agreed with. "I think you're describing a world of tracking which I think is highly unlikely to occur, because people will be upset about it in the same way you are," Schmidt said. "Governments won't allow it, and it'll be bad business. And ultimately, in a competitive market, companies want the consumers to be happy. So it's true tracking in this context...you're taking a much broader view of the word ['tracking'] than any I would use. A situation where you go to people and say, 'Oh, here's our phone, and we're going to track you to death,' people are not going to buy that phone. It's just a bad business model."

The issue, however, is that it's actually turned out to be a very good business model for many tech companies, especially in the mobile market. Targeted mobile advertising is becoming increasingly crucial to the bottom lines of companies like Google and Facebook; last quarter, for example, mobile advertising revenue represented roughly 30% of Facebook's ad revenue. Yet recent studies indicate many people are wary of growing data collection. And the average user is confronted with a general lack of transparency regarding what data is being tracked and for what purposes.

Though market competition (or regulation) may dispel some inappropriate corporate uses of personal data tracking, the likelihood is the more ways we interact with technology, the more data we're likely to share—perhaps unknowingly.

Schmidt does not believe this to be the case. "Not everyone is going to track all your behavior," he stressed. "There is no central Borg tracking all of these things."

Still, the former Google CEO did touch on some moral issues related to certain types of data collection. "In America, there is a sense of fairness, culturally true for all of us...if you have a teenage boy or girl who makes a mistake—does some sort of crime, goes to juvenile hall, is released—in our system, they can apply and have that expunged from their record. They can legally state that they were never convicted of anything. That seems like a reasonable thing," Schmidt said. "Today, that's not possible because of the Internet...[and] that seems to violate our innate sense of fairness."

"This lack of a delete button on the Internet is in fact a significant issue," Schmidt said. "There are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing...and there are times when it is inappropriate. How do we decide? We have to have that debate now."

[Image: Flickr user Marius Dollinger]

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16 Comments

  • 6917628a

    A very interesting perspective.  I think one of the growing pains of the Internet is that people are used to the written word being able to be disposable, when in reality, the written word - if written on the internet, is like the spoken word.  It can't be un-spoken, and in fact, short of apologies, can't be un-recorded thanks to Google, and countless other "services" capturing our information in the name of making our lives easier.

  • $2353470

    One of the fundamental disconnects in this is that it is not the relationship or dialogue between consumers and sellers that is pushing us to the dark side.  It is the scanning, analysis and intrusion technology sellers offering more and more insight to singularly- and intensively-focused marketeers *inside* large-market sellers who only want more data for "targeting" regardless of morals, unintended consequences or other "minor* issues.  Those marketeers will always propone to their leaders that consumers want correct targeting so they pursue all means of targeting.

    Another fundamental problem in all of this is that a perfect view of everything one has done or chosen previously is not necessarily the *right* predictor of future desires.  As an acute example to demonstrate this point, an alcoholic might have generated a very strong pattern of behavioral and consumptive data, but if that alcoholic makes a genuine and important change in his/her life, all of the precipitates of that targeting are both incorrect technically and unwanted, harmful and immoral in human terms.

  • Scott G R Rice

    I believe it's helpful to differentiate the various uses or
    contexts for identity information.  Implementing a Delete Key, even if it were possible, could have unexpected adverse affects unless those different contexts are considered.   The
    context of fraud-prevention is inherently different than that of marketing
    although similar types of consumer information are used.  While it may make the discussion simpler to
    lump together all consumer-related identity information under the “tracking”
    category and, hence, rule it out as a potential privacy infringement, there are legitimate,
    cautious and consumer-minded companies that support the information network that
    makes the lives of consumers much simpler and easier.   Without this information network that allows
    companies to defend themselves from fraud, eCommerce could not have developed as
    it has.   There are certainly times when a Delete Key for identities could be helpful, but it’s
    important for consumers to be aware that tracking for the purpose of marketing
    is just one of the contexts in which their information might be used.   If a Delete Key ever shows up, consumers should be given enough insight to know both the positives and negatives from such a potentially significant action.

    Scott G R Rice

    CIO, PacificEast 

  • stop the cyborgs

    The problem is that we are put in a faith position. We must (without knowledge or control) trust that Google, the Government and other parties will never abuse their power and knowledge.

  • apfwebs

    Schmidt suggests that Google's tracking is all in the realm of old fashioned "good-natured" monetization. Even were that true, the web presence of such information sometimes exposes the possibility of more insidious effects.

  • Ric

    "Governments won't allow it, and it'll be bad business." I find this to be the funniest thing I have seen all day! That is so opposite of the truth that I am nearly speechless in response.

    In its move toward a totalitarian climate the US govt already requests more data from Google than ever before and the more big data gets bigger the more access Uncle Sam will want! Its all just the tip of the iceberg currently. With innovation like Glass and imbedded tech, privacy will no longer exist, PERIOD!

  • Greg Cohn

    Not all data is created equal.  With respect to explicitly created data, of course a delete key is a good idea -- our company is built on this idea.  With respect to behind-the-scenes tracking and other implicit data, however, a perfectly good option is not to collect it in the first place.

  • Andreas Kuhn

    A "delete function" is the wrong approach. Better to encrypt/scramble sensitive content on social networks. Make content only readable to authorized members of social networks and be able to change the policies even after posting. See http://www.scrambls.com 

  • Cookie Collective

    If anyone is well placed to put that delete button in - its surely Eric Schmidt.

  • faizan Ali

     "Not everyone is going to track all your behavior," he stressed. "There is no central Borg tracking all of these things."
    I dont agree to this statement, in this digital age everyone and everything is being tracked and the reason is that "its good business". When facebook, twitter or Google offers us something for free it does not mean that they are being generous it just means that we are the product which they are selling to the big corporations around the world. We are the most important data, they sell US to them so that they can sell their products to us. This is a vicious Cycle which will probably never end.
    I do agree that there should be a delete button but sadly there isn't and to counter that the masses have found a hide Button in the shape of VPNs (http://goo.gl/Ddp8U). living in a democratic state we still have to pay an extra penny for our safety whereas it is the job of the govt.

  • Jason Head

    The nature of information ultimately makes true deletion almost impossible.

    From archiving, to backups, copies of one kind or another; even if original sources are deleted it doesn't  guarantee that it won't pop up some where else.
    The root solution is don't say it, don't do it, don't share it, don't record it in the first place.Ultimately individuals have to shoulder much of the responsibility for what is out there, beyond what they are forced to provide by law.And those youthful indiscretions that make their way online? Well, that is more sociological related starting with parents, and then education from an early age of what is and isn't a good idea to do, and share.  

  • stop the cyborgs

    "don't share it, don't record it " would be a perfectly reasonable position if it were possible to control what others are sharing about you.

    "don't say it, don't do it" on the other hand is the chilling effect of living in a surveillance state.

  • Jason Head

    We do live in a world where it is easier for your words to come back and haunt you, and even be taken out of character and used against you.

    This, even it what you said wasn't innately wrong or harmful - caution is warranted to try and make sure at least people have to work a little to make you sound like a threat or a social misfit within their worldview.

    You could get all paranoid about this pretty easy, but a little enhanced, times adapted, common sense can go a long ways.
    The potential advantages to participation in online communication can be greater than the risks with discretion.