On Friday, we learned that Google quietly signed the Student Privacy Pledge – almost a week after President Obama called them out by name to ask why not. That is a good thing. Why did it take so long? Hubris first. Google thinks itself above association with other companies when such association is not intrinsically within its business interest. Joining the Pledge when it was first announced three months ago would have seemed unseemly.
By the same token, fear of government regulation had they not signed the Pledge might account for ink on the page. President Obama’s attention might well have been a lightly-veiled warning of not only legislation but stringent regulation to reign Google and other companies into compliance. Notwithstanding their high and might posture among peers, Google probably did not want to be known as the kid who got the whole class in trouble.
Google also did not originally sign the pledge possibly because it feared legal liability. Trade association agreements carry the weight of law. Failure to live up to terms places a company in jeopardy of an F.T.C. violation for unfair or deceptive trade practices. Famously successful at manipulating language of policies and statements, Google has to date avoided yet another F.T.C. investigation with its shell game around terms such as “serving ads” and “data mining for commercial purposes.” Having someone else in control of the language, in this case the Future of Privacy Forum, makes Google nervous. Understandably, because its technological and business practices have historically been out of whack with the Pledge.
And yet Google may have also signed the Pledge because it feared F.T.C. action if it did not. Exposed by the Gmail case for having failed to turn off data mining for commercial purpose, Google stands in danger of F.T.C. investigation. Its modus operandi of “Do Not Ask Permission, Beg Forgiveness” has lost its adolescent charm as it placed thousands of school districts, colleges and universities in danger of FERPA violation. Having been hood-winked, if not outright deceived, school districts, colleges and universities would hardly have taken such an action lying down had Department of Education investigations come to pass. All it would take is a call from the Department of Education to the Federal Trade Commission to get the ball rolling. And that President Obama made a historic visit to the F.T.C. in order to make the announcement about student data privacy last week might have been sending a not-so-subtle signal to Google.
And it still might come. Remember the advice that President Reagan received from the writer Susanne Massie about negotiations on nuclear arms with the Soviet Union, doveryai no proveryai (trust, but verify)? That should be the next step with Google. Transparency of technological and business practices as well as consistent and clear notice and consent are now required to level the playing field among vendors and establish trust, not charm, as the foundation of relationships with Google and other vendors that traffic in education records and student data.
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