The Google Doomsday Sayer Charlatans

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Last year the media was abuzz as people counted down the days to May 21. Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, had gained notoriety for his prediction that not only the Rapture was coming, but that he had nailed down the exact date. Commentators on TV, in newspapers, on the radio and on the Internet were all watching with a mixture of skepticism and anticipation to see whether this would indeed be the advent of the End of Days or whether Camping would be proven an undeniable fraud.

We have seen a similar build-up of anticipation over the past month as privacy advocates have engaged in collective handwringing over the announcement from Google that it was going to update and simplify its privacy policy on March 1, 2012. I’ve already discussed in a previous post why this change helps users and is in line with suggestions made by the FTC to make privacy notices clearer and more standardized. But groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) have actively been campaigning against the changes and have portrayed the new policy as a threat to users and the Internet as we know it. Millions of users, they claimed, will have their privacy violated or harmed in some way with the new policy. European regulators have even asked Google to postpone implementing the changes because of their concerns. Come today, as the new Google privacy policy goes into effect, we will find out if these privacy prognosticators were unheeded prophets or merely charlatans.

It is no wonder the extreme privacy groups keep making these claims, since they keep getting the attention they crave. Let’s face it—this type of fear-mongering helps get them quoted in the media and raise money. As with Camping, who had made similar failed predictions before, many privacy advocates are no stranger to crying wolf. Yet sadly, in both cases, many people fail to heed the lessons of the past and keep falling for the same con again and again. After Camping’s predictions failed to come true he went into seclusion before eventually admitting to the media that he was “flabbergasted” that the Rapture did not occur.  He revised his prediction to October 21, 2011, but this prediction also failed. Now he has more or less stayed out of the public eye.

Will privacy advocates admit they are wrong if no disaster befalls Internet users or will they continue on with business as usual? My prediction is that when the Internet keeps working the way it always has without any noticeable negative impact on users, privacy groups will just keep their head down and move on to the next issue. A few months from now I’m sure we’ll be hearing new claims from some privacy groups saying that “the end is near” with regards to some other privacy policy change or incident. It’s time we wise up to this con and say we aren’t going to be fooled again.

In the end, these groups are damaging their own cause by taking offense at every change in policy or practice by companies who are generally building great products and services for consumers that make everyone better off. Privacy is an important issue and it is trivialized by these false claims. Yes, there are some bad actors out there, but they are the exception, not the rule, and we should keep that in mind when creating privacy regulations or “rights.”

These are no End of Days for the Internet. The Internet will continue on as it always has and users will not suffer massive privacy harms from this policy change. While these latest claims about Google may not go up there in the history books with other failed claims such as “The Earth is flat,” we should remember that hoaxes should be exposed and those who peddle them should be viewed with a little more skepticism the next time they come selling something new.

Image credit: Flickr user Chris Yarzab

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About the author

Daniel Castro is a Senior Analyst with ITIF specializing in information technology (IT) policy. His research interests include health IT, data privacy, e-commerce, e-government, electronic voting, information security and accessibility. Before joining ITIF, Mr. Castro worked as an IT analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) where he audited IT security and management controls at various government agencies. He contributed to GAO reports on the state of information security at a variety of federal agencies. He has a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an M.S. in Information Security Technology and Management from Carnegie Mellon University.