Google plays down privacy fears
Other websites 'more harmful' than search engine, says Schmidt
Google has played down concerns about user privacy, arguing that pictures and personal information shared on social networking sites could be more damaging than the data it collects through its search engine.
Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, said that it was crucial that people distinguished between "real harm" and perceived harm.
The company has been at the centre of a privacy storm after it admitted that its Street View cars had mistakenly collected information sent over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.
"It's highly unlikely that we've captured any useful data in that," Schmidt told a round-table at the Zeitgeist conference in London. "And nothing has been done with that data."
The Information Commissioner's Office has ordered Google to destroy all of the personal data that it inadvertently collected, but said it would be taking no further action against the company, a decision that has drawn criticism from privacy campaigners.
Larry Page, Google's co-founder, agreed that it was important to acknowledge that some things that happen online are potentially more harmful than others.
"On social networking sites, there really is a ton of data that is being made public," said Page. "And some of that is now being made public and semipublic when it didn't used to be. And that really has changed society on a whole number of levels, and it does cause harm and it does cause worry. Most of the issues that we face are around our search logs, and you can't prove that anyone has been harmed in that case."
Schmidt said that society faced some soul-searching about what privacy compromises they were prepared to accept in the digital age.
"Society as a group has not yet decided what is appropriate and not appropriate in the privacy sphere," said Schmidt. "Each culture and government will ultimately make the decision. And they will differ [between countries].
"We do understand that this is a very serious issue. We're not in any kind of denial or lack of understanding about the importance of the question."
Google also dismissed the threat posed by social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Facebook, which has 450 million users worldwide, recently signed an agreement with Microsoft to enable Facebook users to create and share documents from within the social networking site, and Facebook's photo-storage and chat facilities are seen by some industry commentators to compete directly with Google.
"There's a tendency to think of the internet as a zero-sum game with only one winner," said Schmidt. "The internet allows for multiple winners, and those winners can win in ways that aren't compatible with each other."