Google, Microsoft to team up on privacy push launching tomorrow

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The world’s biggest tech heavyweights are set to team up with each other to influence the future of Internet privacy law. Google, Microsoft and a number of other civil liberties groups, think tanks and tech companies will unveil a set of principles they want to advocate for updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act tomorrow.

That’s a law created in 1986 that sets out the kinds of privacy rights people can expect to have when they use phones and computers. It would also cover government access to data that citizens entrust to companies like Google or Facebook.

Obviously, communication has evolved almost to an almost unrecognizable state from 24 years ago, so there’s not a lot of clarity surrounding whether — say — a Twitter DM or a privately shared piece of content on Facebook might constitute protected communications that government investigators need search warrants to access. How and when should companies like Microsoft and Google hand over data like web searches, profiles, shared content and location history based on IP addresses?

Clearly, the more people share on the web through services like Google Buzz, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, the weaker their control over personal information becomes within their social circles, to the public and to the government. Friends might inadvertently share sensitive information and there are huge incentives for companies to be ever more public with data for pageviews, user growth and advertising as we’ve seen with Facebook and Google Buzz. Google is under pressure for its privacy policies after legislators wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking for an investigation last week into Buzz. Tomorrow’s announcement will be about government access to data, however.

If you’re curious about how the government uses Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to investigate suspects, I’ve embedded Department of Justice training materials that were released just two weeks ago below. Facebook is described as “often cooperative” by DOJ officials, while Twitter requires legal process to preserve and hand over data.


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