Google’s Unusual Piracy Ads

Google is focusing on the importance of protecting personal information in an unusual marketing campaign for a company that has been blasted for its own online privacy lapses and practices.

The educational ads will start appearing Tuesday in dozens of U.S. newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal, and magazines, including Time and the New Yorker. Google Inc. also will splash its message across billboards within the subways of New York and Washington, as well as various websites.

Google will address some of the basics of online privacy and security in the “Good To Know” ads, which will all include referrals to a website for additional information.

Initial topics to be covered include the steps that can be taken to protect online account passwords and the use of computer coding to locate and identify Web surfers. Google will also try to explain why its widely used search engine can produce more helpful results if it knows more about the past interests of the person making the request.

While Google views the campaign as a public service, it may come across as disingenuous to critics who say the Internet search leader compiles too much personal information about its users and then isn’t careful enough about protecting the sensitive data.

In a major gaffe, Google exposed the personal contacts of its email users in 2010 when it launched a new social service called Buzz. That breakdown led to a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requiring the company to submit to external audits of its privacy policies every other year.

Google’s commitment to privacy was called into question again in 2010 when it acknowledged that company-dispatched cars taking photos of streets around the world also had been vacuuming up personal emails and website activity occurring over unsecured wireless networks set up in homes and small businesses.

“This campaign should be nominated for some kind of award for fiction,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “If grades were given out for privacy protection, Google would get a D plus.”

Google’s ads are coming out at a time when lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and Europe have been examining whether to mandate changes on how much information that websites can gather about visitors without giving them more controls to prevent the surveillance.

Gathering digital dossiers of personal data helps target Internet ads at people more likely to buy the products and services being peddled. Google has an incentive to ensure online ads remain as effective as possible because those commercial messages generate most of its revenue, which totaled $27 billion through the first nine months of last year. The company’s full-year figures are due out Thursday.

The ad campaign is “really just a PR offensive to help dim the increased scrutiny of Google’s privacy practices,” Chester said.

Not so, says Alma Whitten, who was named Google’s director of privacy for product and engineering after the company acknowledged its 2010 missteps.

“We all have family and friends that ask us for advice on privacy and security all the time,” Whitten said. Those recurring questions, she said, made Google realize it should do something to give everyone a better grasp on the fundamentals of online privacy.

The total bill for the multi-week blitz will run in the “tens of millions” dollars, according to Google. The company, which is based in Mountain View, California, declined to be more specific