NYT Journalist Becomes an Unintentional Activist

Sometimes journalists don't just report the news, they become a part of it. Such is the case with New York Time reporter Saul Hansell. Back in May, Hansell reported on a spat between Google and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) trade group over Google's refusal to add a link to its privacy policy on the Google homepage. The NAI felt that such a link was part of it charter, and Google was applying to become a member of the NAI. Google, on the other hand, was adamant about keeping its homepage as sparse as possible and didn't want to mar its clean page with even one more word. 

Three days later, Hansell reported that he stumbled upon a California Law that implies that Goolge must link to its privacy policy from its homepage:

"The California Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003 requires the operator of a commercial Web site that collects personal information about users to "conspicuously post its privacy policy on its Web site."

How conspicuously? The site needs to link to the policy “located on the homepage or first significant page after entering the Web site.” And the law has some rules for how prominent the link must be."

To seek clarification on the issue, he reached out to Joanne McNabb, Chief of the California Office of Privacy Protection. Not only did Hansell get at least some of the clarification he was looking for, he inadvertently ratted Google out to a government agency in the process. McNabb explained to Hansell that the purpose of the California Office of Privacy Protection was "to promote best practices, not to interpret the law." So while McNabb's response was not to sick the "privacy police" on Goolge, she would "reach out to Google in order to discuss the matter and press its recommendation."

Hansell opened a can of worms it would appear. Not only did Google hear from the California Office of Privacy Protection, but a coalition of consumer and privacy groups, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, issued public statements, urging Google to add a privacy link to its homepage.

Fast forward one month to yesterday, and Google finally decided to succumb to the pressure. Google's Senior Policy Counsel, Pablo Chavez, blogged about it on Google's Public Policy blog:

"Google values our users' privacy first and foremost. Trust is the basis of everything we do, so we want users to be familiar and comfortable with the integrity and care we give their personal data. 

So, today, we're making a homepage change by adding a link to our privacy overview and policies. We added this link both to our homepage and to our results page to make it easier for users to find information about our privacy principles. The new "Privacy" link goes to our privacy center, which was revamped earlier this year to be more straightforward and approachable with videos and a non-legalese "Privacy Overview" to make sure users understand in basic terms what Google does, doesn't, will, and won't do in regard their personal information."

Hansell then reached out to Google to get a response as to "why Google did this now." This was the response to Hansell from Google spokesman, Steve Langdon:

"Some users, bloggers, and regulatory bodies have asked us why we didn't have a link, and, after evaluating, we decided that it was the right time to add one. While users have always been able to easily search for and find our policy before, or click through to it, this provides an easier path to learning about our privacy approach. We've also added the same link on the results page, as many users arrive on them directly."

Does this mean then, that Google had to eat crow and add another word to its homepage? Au contraire! The word "Privacy" now replaces the word "Google" in the copyright notice at the bottom of the page. The word count on the homepage stays exactly the same; however, it does now have one additional character.

Speaking of characters, it's fascinating to see how a journalist can inadvertently become an agent of change. There has always been a blurred line between reporting the news and impacting it. Then again, the news has often been referred to as the Fourth Estate, which refers to the implied responsibility of journalists to be activists of democracy. Traditionally, the first three Estates are the clergy, nobility, and the middle and working classes. A modern interpretation of the first three Estates could be the government, corporations, and the general population. It looks like, in this case, Hansell was meeting his responsibilities as a modern-day journalist head-on.
Tags:  eco, NYT, AC, COM, ACT