Google’s Secret Internal Vision Statement Reveals Struggle With Privacy

GoogleBarcodeJessica Vascellaro reports for the Wall Street Journal:

A confidential, seven-page Google Inc. “vision statement” shows the information-age giant in a deep round of soul-searching over a basic question: How far should it go in profiting from its crown jewels—the vast trove of data it possesses about people’s activities?

Should it tap more of what it knows about Gmail users? Should it build a vast “trading platform” for buying and selling Web data? Should it let people pay to not see any ads at all?

These and other ideas big and small—the third one was listed under “wacky”—are discussed in the document, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and compiled in late 2008 by Aitan Weinberg, now a senior product manager for interest-based advertising. Along with interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, the vision statement offers a candid, introspective look at Google’s fight to remain at the vanguard of the information economy.

Google is pushing into uncharted privacy territory for the company. Until recently, it refrained from aggressively cashing in on its own data about Internet users, fearing a backlash. But the rapid emergence of scrappy rivals who track people’s online activities and sell that data, along with Facebook Inc.’s growth, is forcing a shift.

A person familiar with the matter called the vision statement a “brainstorming document” and said it wasn’t presented to senior executives. Some of its ideas are “complete non-starters,” this person said. Efforts to reach Mr. Weinberg weren’t successful.

Still, several have been implemented. Among them: Last year, Google for the first time started collecting a new type of data about the websites people visit, and using it to track and show them ads across the Internet.

Worries about the size of Google’s data cache are “hypothetical,” said co-founder Larry Page last month in response to a reporter’s question about privacy. “It is always easy to be fearful of what could happen, right?”…

[continues with excerpts from the Google document at the Wall Street Journal]

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