Privacy is a hot topic at Google, and chairman Eric Schmidt wasted no time in cultivating an MWC 2012 keynote around personal freedoms, the role of the internet as activist, and safeguarding of our individual information. Yet what Schmidt’s appearance did show us more than anything is that the chairman is consumed with an obsession around the topic, either attempting to convinced us that we have the option of anonymity, or outlining the dance which Google follows trying to balance between the public and the private.
Those of us hoping for Android@Home information, or details about Android 5.0 Jelly Bean or even Google I/O 2012 left Schmidt’s keynote disappointed. Android was name-checked – Schmidt was particularly keen to stress the activation figures – and a brief, three minute demo of Google Chrome for Android took center stage for a moment, but otherwise Schmidt grabbed the opportunity to outline his vision of the future of the internet, of connectedness-powered social activism, and the evolution of society.
Privacy, it seems, plays a huge role in that evolution, or at least so Schmidt would have us believe. The Google chairman mentioned the flexibility of privacy controls on at least eight occasions during his 35 minute keynote and subsequent Q&A session, hammering home the idea of the search giant being mindful of our inherent reluctance to be tracked and monitored.
That’s not to say Schmidt suggested private necessarily meant better. Google users not opting for anonymous browsing would get better search results and generally more satisfying services, he explained, a reference to Google’s learning algorithm that uses your track record in search and other activity to educate future browsing.
Schmidt’s stance on privacy seems, ironically, to be more akin to that of advocates than the looser internet populace. At several points during the keynote he emphasized that he is against internet tracking and monitoring. Yet the chairman has also been a regular guest of various US Congress caucuses and other groups, each concerned at the extent of the information Google has collated on each of its users, and Schmidt insisting that not only has no wrongdoing taken place, but that the search company’s best interest is always that of the user.
Perhaps the biggest hint to Schmidt’s attitude toward privacy came not from his repeated theme that Google respects it, but his dismissal of an audience question regarding the “quality” of an online experience versus its real-life counterpart. Our phones, tablets and laptops are not dominating us, Schmidt insisted; after all, we are free to turn them off entirely. We are lucky, he said, because we have the choice: either the online world, with its inherent compromises, or the real world outside of it.
Right now, broad stroke options are all we have: turn the device off or activate incognito mode, or open ourselves to monitoring and tracking. Schmidt may talk of an open internet and inalienable freedoms, but Google’s approach – like that of others, to be fair – still lacks the finesse that will truly satisfy either the US Congress or the general public alike.