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Google 'open' memo betrays deep corporate delusion

Even when we're closed, we're open

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Opaque transparency

After trumpeting Google's commitment to open source and open standards, Rosenberg pats himself on the back for a belief in "open information" - surely the most delusional claim of his 4,440-word memo. "Unlike open technology, where our objective is to grow the Internet ecosystem, our approach to open information is to build trust with the individuals who engage within that ecosystem (users, partners, and customers)," he says.

"Trust is the most important currency online, so to build it we adhere to three principles of open information: value, transparency, and control."

Never mind that Eric Schmidt seemed hell-bent on destroying any existing trust when he told the world that only miscreants care about online privacy. Rosenberg's words are that much more dangerous. He genuinely believes that Google should be lauded for a commitment to privacy and, yes, "transparency."

Naturally, he points to the Google Dashboard, a new service that ostensibly explains what Google knows about you. "We are, to the best of our knowledge, the first Internet company to offer a service like this and we hope it will become the standard," Rosenberg says.

But the Dashboard - like so much Google "privacy" PR - is patently misleading. While purporting to address the problem, it ignores the meat of it.

The trouble - it should go without saying - is that Google automatically opts users into its mass data-tracking machine - and it doesn't give them a simple and obvious means of opting out. Dashboard only highlights the issue. It shows you a random collection of data associated with your Google account - something you've actively opted in to. But as the consumer watchdog known as Consumer Watchdog points out, it doesn't tell you what data is associated with your IP address. And there's no way of de-linking data from your IP.

"This was a PR gimmick," Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson says. "All it does is put in one place the info you've consciously given them." Shades of Google's claim that it "anonymizes" your data after nine months.

Rosenberg does say that Google could "go farther" with the Dashboard. But clearly, this won't involve the ability to instantly prevent Google from collecting data against your IP address. And even if it did, we all know that few people would actually use the thing. True openness would involve actually asking people before you plant a tracking cookie on their PC.

Once again, open becomes closed when the money is threatened. Google needs all that data for targeting ads.

Like any other money-driven outfit, Google is open when open suits its needs. And it's closed when closed suits. The plain truth is that Google is happy to, say, open source an operating system because this will feed the black box of an ad system that wields such control over internet dollars. Its boondoggle of a business model is tailor-made to open sourcing code - at least on the client side.

But even then, Google plays its open source cards extremely close to its chest. Aside from Apple, no tech outfit is more secretive about what goes on inside the company. That may be the ultimate irony. But it too is lost on Rosenberg.

Jonathan Rosenberg acknowledges that Google's view of open is profitable. But he fails to mention this wouldn't be the case without the closed. The way he sees it, the profits come because Google is so darn smart. "Open systems are chaotic and profitable," he says, "but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else."

On one level, this proves Rosenberg's original point. Open is like Rashomon. Google sees things quite differently than everyone else. And what a frightening thought that is. There's nothing more dangerous than someone who believes they can do no wrong. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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