April 19, 2013
Privacy issues now receive significant attention in legislatures around the world. In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a privacy bill directed toward protection of information collected from children using computers in school. This Massachusetts legislation is distinctive because the driving force behind it is reportedly Microsoft Corporation.
The Massachusetts legislation would place constraints on the ability of cloud-computing service providers to collect data from students using computers provided by schools. The bill prohibits use of the data collected from students for commercial purposes, including advertising.
Google currently offers schools and students e-mail and other Web applications through its Google Apps for Education products. Microsoft offers students e-mail through its Outlook service integrated into its Microsoft Office product.
Microsoft reportedly takes the position that it will not mine data it collects from students for advertising purposes. Google has not clearly indicated its commercial plans for student data.
Microsoft’s involvement in the Massachusetts legislation was apparently on its own initiative, not part of a coordinated effort with privacy advocacy groups. The Microsoft effort has reportedly led some privacy groups to question Microsoft’s motives.
Some Microsoft critics suggest that the legislation may simply be a competitive effort against its rival, Google. The Massachusetts bill can be seen, at least in part, as an attack against a significant component of the Google business model, which makes active commercial use of data collected from users of the diverse Google apps.
The Massachusetts legislation appears to be part of a broader Microsoft strategy to foster consumer questions and concerns regarding Google’s information privacy policies and practices. Microsoft is apparently using privacy as a method to distinguish its products from those offered by Google.
It seems that Microsoft has concluded that consumer concern regarding information privacy is widespread enough that it is a potential source of competitive advantage. Legislators and regulators should take note of that assessment. If Microsoft has determined that consumers care enough about privacy to make that issue a source of commercial advantage, it is time for government to implement a more comprehensive and effective information privacy regulatory framework.
Privacy advocates should welcome support for more effective safeguards from all sources, including major companies such as Microsoft. Good ideas to facilitate sensible privacy protection can come from a wide range of organizations. It is, however, important to understand the motives behind all privacy proposals. Proposals motivated by pursuit of commercial competitive advantage should not be ignored, however, those motives should be considered carefully as privacy initiatives are pursued.