Beyond Google and evil: How policy makers, journalists and consumers should talk differently about Google and privacy


  • Chris Jay Hoofnagle UC Berkeley Law



information privacy, privacy enhancing technologies, self-regulation


Google has come to symbolize the tensions between the benefits of innovative, information-dependent new services and the desire of individuals to control the contexts in which personal information is used. This essay reviews hundreds of newspaper articles where Google speaks about privacy in an effort to characterize the company’s handling of these tensions, to provide context explaining the meaning of the company’s privacy rhetoric, and to advance the privacy dialogue among policy makers, journalists, and consumers. The dialogue surrounding these tensions is unfocused because many policy makers, journalists, and consumers concentrate the debate on whether the company violates its “you can make money without doing evil” corporate motto. This first observation flows to a second: Google’s conception of “evil” is tied to the revolution the company brought about in advertising practices, practices that many think are mainstream now. Google is thus missing opportunities to remind the public that its advertising policies have several strong pro-consumer aspects, many of which are lost when “evil talk” is employed. Third, vague privacy rhetoric signals a weak commitment to technical or legal safeguards. Journalists are well suited to remedy this by exercising greater inquiry and skepticism in contexts where Google’s privacy representations are non-substantive. Finally, Google heavily relies upon appeals to competition, arguing that those who adopt the company’s services engage in meaningful tradeoffs. Quietly shifting practices, lock in, and lengthy data retention periods, however, mean that these tradeoffs must be continually reevaluated. Google should give voice to its competition and tradeoff rhetoric by creating data portability and deletion rights for consumers.

Author Biography

Chris Jay Hoofnagle, UC Berkeley Law

Chris Jay Hoofnagle is director of UC-Berkeley Law?s Information Privacy Programs, an attorney, and senior fellow to the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. He is an expert in information privacy law. Hoofnagle co-chairs the annual Privacy Law Scholars Conference. He is licensed to practice in California and Washington, DC.




How to Cite

Hoofnagle, C. J. (2009). Beyond Google and evil: How policy makers, journalists and consumers should talk differently about Google and privacy. First Monday, 14(4).