Google wins major PR points for resisting the DOJ's request for information in the now-famous COPA case. The DOJ has filed a motion to compel Google to hand over the info, but Google is hanging tough. Whatever the motivation -- Google needed those PR points to make good with privacy advocates -- consumers will reward Google for at least trying to stall what could become a rapid descent down a slippery slope for privacy rights.
But in the end, that may not be enough. And "don't be evil" may be a too simplistic motto to live by given the realities of the privacy-free world that Google has helped to create. In an editorial today, The New York Times framed the problem perfectly:
The battle raises the question of how much of our personal information companies should be allowed to hold onto in the first place. Without much thought, Internet users have handed over vast quantities of private information to corporations. Many people don't realize that some innocuously named "cookies" in personal computers allow companies to track visits to various Web sites.... When pressed on privacy issues, Google - whose informal motto is "Don't be evil" - says it can be trusted with this information. But profiling consumers' behavior is potentially profitable for companies. And once catalogued, information can be abused by the government as well. Either way, the individual citizen loses.
It does matter that Google understands that it can do good or "be evil." But it matters more that it understands that evil can be forced upon it. We like Princeton Professor Ed Felton's recommendation that Google elect itself as the "privacy leader," just as Microsoft devoted itself to security back in the 90's. It would be good behavior and good business.