So this is interesting. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is
dragging Google in front of the FTC
, with a complaint alleging some potentially serious privacy violations concerning tracking of students in schools. The crux of the EFF's complaint:
While Google does not use student data for targeted advertising within a subset of Google sites, EFF found that Google’s “Sync” feature for the Chrome browser is enabled by default on Chromebooks sold to schools. This allows Google to track, store on its servers, and data mine for non-advertising purposes, records of every Internet site students visit, every search term they use, the results they click on, videos they look for and watch on YouTube, and their saved passwords. Google doesn’t first obtain permission from students or their parents and since some schools require students to use Chromebooks, many parents are unable to prevent Google’s data collection.
Looking over the details, I'm not entirely
sure what the issue is here. The sync feature isn't designed to violate someone's privacy, but to allow users to access the same websites from different machines -- a feature that could be useful, especially in school settings where there may be a bunch of laptops that are passed around, so students may not always use the same machine. Also, wouldn't Google need to store their saved passwords? It also seems noteworthy that the organizations that put together the Student Privacy Pledge
that EFF says Google is violating, have all said
that EFF is wrong
in its complaint. That said, the EFF is usually really good about these things, so I'll give the group the benefit of the doubt that there could be a problem here and will be paying attention to how this shakes out. No matter what, it will be worth following how the FTC responds.
What's much more interesting to me about this, however, is that this once again shows how the EFF is not
a front for Google. There's this weird myth among some in the anti-Google/anti-digital rights world that EFF is just a "shill" for Google. I can't count the number of times I've seen blog posts falsely claim that Google is a major funder of EFF. Hell, resident clueless digital rights commentator Andrew Orlowski at the Register made that claim
just a few days ago, saying that EFF "received half of its income one year from Google" even though he knows that claim is hellishly misleading.
You can see the EFF's annual report
here, which includes this handy chart.
You'll notice, first of all, that approximately slightly less than 1/3 of EFF's funding comes from "corporate contributions" -- but the vast, vast majority of that actually
comes from contributions from Humble Bundle campaigns (when you buy video games from Humble, you can designate some portion to go to charity, and EFF is almost always one of the supported charities). Thus, it's actually only less than $600,000 of EFF's $13.5 million income that came from corporate donations. That's less than 5% -- and even if Google is one of those contributors, it's likely not the only one. Now, it's also probably true that some of the "individual contributors" work for Google, but it's certainly not corporate donations. And, from what I've heard from multiple EFF people, the actual amount of revenue that comes from Google employees as individual contributors is tiny
What most of the conspiracy theorists, such as Orlowski, cite when they say that Google provided a ton of money to the EFF is not what it seems at all. It was a one-time payout, first of all, and it was to settle a legal dispute in which EFF also went against Google
. Specifically, it was over Google's ridiculous failed "Google Buzz" offering that had some really weak privacy controls. EFF was among many groups who criticized
Google over its privacy failings for Buzz, and so part of the class action settlement was that Google would give a chunk of money to a variety of non-profit/public interest groups who focused on privacy protection -- with EFF being one of those recipients. So even the key case in which Google definitely gave EFF money, it involved a court-sanctioned punishment
of Google, giving the money to EFF (and others) who had opposed Google's privacy practices. This was part of a so-called "cy pres" award, and as you can see, in the most recent period, that represented a little over a million dollars in EFF's income. This is hardly a majority and, considering how it comes in, hardly the kind of thing that makes EFF a mouthpiece for those providing the money.
And, of course, now the EFF is going after Google for privacy issues once again. It makes you wonder how everyone who likes to insist EFF is just a Google mouthpiece will spin this one. I'm sure the conspiracy theories will be creative.