SAN FRANCISCO. In the world of online privacy, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla are all front and center. The chief privacy officers from all four vendors took the stage at the RSA Security conference today to debate what online privacy is all about.
The most heated moment during the panel discussion came when Keith Enright, Senior Privacy Counsel at Google, challenged Microsoft on privacy claims. Microsoft has been running a marketing campaign called 'Scroogled' alleging that Google Gmail is privacy risk.
Microsoft alleges that Google's contextual ads, which show up alongside user email, is a violation of user privacy. Google does not agree. Enright noted that the use of automated algorithms is commonplace across multiple facets of technology and is not an issue of privacy. He added that automated algorithms are used to make the contextual ads more relevant.
"The idea that doing that (contextual advertising) is in any way detrimental to privacy, or is antithetical to the interests of our users, I think is misleading and intellectually dishonest," Enright said.
Overall, privacy is a complex landscape. Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook, said that her company has developed a robust cross functional team that looks at every product feature in order to understand implications.
Alex Fowler, Chief Privacy Officer at Mozilla, explained that in his group, the issue of privacy complexity starts with the user and then moves to the data.
"We start with trying to understand what are the user expectations and how we can mitigate any surprises," Fowler said.
Brendon Lynch, Chief Privacy Officer at Microsoft stressed that privacy is not a one-size-fits-all approach, though he agreed it's important to ask customers for what they want.
Google's Enright noted that his company has made significant investment to try and remove privacy complexity for users.
"We have been doing work to simplify privacy policies so users don't have to navigate across a byzantine labyrinth of disclosure that only lawyers understand," Enright said.
All of the major browser vendors now implement some form of Do Not Track (DNT) policy. The general idea behind DNT is that users, via a preference setting in a browser, indicate to websites their privacy preference to not be tracked.
The actual responses from websites to DNT are not necessarily uniform and neither is the different browser implementations. DNT is currently not an industry standard either. Mozilla's Fowler argued that there is already a lot of DNT traffic today.
Fowler said that 14 percent of Firefox's users base is sending out DNT 1 (please don't track me) headers today.
"We're seeing traffic today, even without a standard in place," Fowler said. "People are asking for a different experience and a different level of privacy and you have to listen to that."
While Google's Enright did not disagree, he noted that advertising and tracking that follows it is not always a bad thing.
"It's important to realize that much of the growth of the Internet has been funded by advertising and that will continue to be true," Enright said. "We need to balance interests."