- Get everybody to legally change their names at the age of 18, or
- Create an internet "Delete" button.
Those are the wouldn't-it-be-nice proposals thrown out by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and current executive chairman.
His suggestion (facetiously said with a smile) regarding data collection when it concerns young people:
"I propose that at the age of 18, you should, just as a policy, change your name... Then you can say, 'That really wasn't me; I really didn't do that!'"
Schmidt shared his thoughts on Google's evolving role in personal privacy at New York University's Stern Business School on Sunday.
Regarding changing our names when we hit 18, Schmidt compared it with the morality that informs the erasure of criminal records for juvenile offenders:
"In America, there is a sense of fairness, culturally true for all of us... if you have a teenage boy or girl who makes a mistake - does some sort of crime, goes to juvenile hall, is released - in our system, they can apply and have that expunged from their record. They can legally state that they were never convicted of anything. That seems like a reasonable thing... Today, that's not possible because of the internet... [and] that seems to violate our innate sense of fairness."
As far as the master Delete button goes, Schmidt says now's the time to start discussing it:
"This lack of a delete button on the internet is in fact a significant issue... There are times when erasure [of data] is the right thing... and there are times when it is inappropriate. How do we decide? We have to have that debate now."
Perhaps we should, if such a thing as an internet "Delete" button were either technically feasible or in fact desirable.
In the meantime, Google and its ilk are amassing treasure troves of personal user data about us as they track, well, just about everything, and as Google gets sued for a lot of those tracking practices.
If you'd like to see the multifaceted ways in which Google tracks us, plans to track us, and some of the legal ramifications it's faced or is facing over such energetic tracking, you can check out Google's privacy rap sheet here [PDF].
A few examples:
- In March, 38 US states imposed a $7 million fine on Google as punishment for Google's grab of emails, text messages, browsing histories and passwords from unsecured wireless networks as its StreetView cars patrolled and photographed neighborhoods worldwide.
- Google Glass: the ultimate creepy stalker toy. With a touch to the lens-less frames, the tiny computer attached to the right earpiece will take photos or video of whatever or whomever the wearer's looking at and broadcast it to millions. Goodbye, privacy! Hello, bans on people wearing newfangled computer glasses!
That's what's happening now.
When Roubini asked Schmidt what privacy would look like in 10 or 20 years, when by-then-old-fashioned smartphones are replaced by wearable gadgets such as Google Glass or perhaps even embedded technology in our eyes or skin, Schmidt emphasized to the audience that the discussion was hypothetical and that Google "is not tracking you" or "doing all these things":
"Does everyone get that we're not doing this? He's talking about a different company or set of companies."
Nor will it, Schmidt says, given that such a high degree of tracking would "upset" people, that "governments won't allow it," and that it would be "bad business":
"... ultimately, in a competitive market, companies want the consumers to be happy. So it's true tracking in this context... you're taking a much broader view of the word ['tracking'] than any I would use. A situation where you go to people and say, 'Oh, here's our phone, and we're going to track you to death,' people are not going to buy that phone. It's just a bad business model."
Oh, really? A bad business model?
As Fast Company's Carr points out, tracking is actually a damn fine business model. Some 30% of Facebook's ad revenue last quarter came from mobile advertising, for example.
Regarding governments not allowing extensive tracking, goodness gracious, what a relief.
I guess the National Security Agency's ginormous spy center isn't for tracking citizens, per se.
It's just for recording every conversation, email and text exchange it scoops up in its electronic net.
Such a relief, she said as she searched for the "sarcasm" HTML code.