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Original author: 
Liz Gannes

Google has warned that it will shut down its Google Reader news aggregator July 1. Many people (myself very much included) are mourning a beloved and useful product, but the company cited declining usage.

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Under CEO Larry Page, Google has made a practice of “spring cleaning” throughout all the seasons so it can narrow its focus. Reader was just a another bullet point on the latest closure list.

But the shutdown wasn’t just a matter of company culture and bigger priorities, sources said. Google is also trying to better orient itself so that it stops getting into trouble with repeated missteps around compliance issues, particularly privacy.

That means every team needs to have people dedicated to dealing with these compliance and privacy issues — lawyers, policy experts, etc. Google didn’t even have a product manager or full-time engineer responsible for Reader when it was killed, so the company didn’t want to add in the additional infrastructure and staff, the sources said.

But at the same time, Google Reader was too deeply integrated into Google Apps to spin it off and sell it, like the company did last year with its SketchUp 3-D modeling software.

The context for this concern about compliance is Google’s repeated public failures on privacy due to lack of oversight and coordination. It’s pretty clear why Page is trying to run a tighter ship.

Regulators have had ample reasons to go after the company. Google recently paid $7 million to settle with U.S. attorneys general over its years-long international Street View Wi-Fi incident, while agreeing to more closely police its employees. And last summer the company paid $22.5 million for breaking the terms of its U.S. Federal Trade Commission agreement over informing users accurately about privacy practices when it used a trick to install ad cookies for users of Apple’s Web browser Safari.

In the Wi-Spy case, after repeatedly downplaying the incident, Google ultimately disclosed that an engineer had devised the drive-by plan to collect user data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks, and had easily passed it through rubber-stamp approval processes.

In the Safari bypass case, Google said it was just trying to check whether users were logged into Google+, and any resulting tracking was inadvertent and no personal information was collected. Ultimately, what the company was held accountable for was having an out-of-date help page — an even more basic slip-up.

While it might not be obvious how Google Reader could be compromised by similar lapses — perhaps policies could fall out of date, or user RSS subscription lists could be exposed — the point is that Google wasn’t willing to commit to ensuring that it was well-run.

So how many users would Google Reader need to make it a valuable enough product to be worthy of investment and a real team?

A petition to save Reader on Change.org has nearly 150,000 signatures. That’s clearly not enough.

Google wouldn’t disclose how many users the product had, but Flipboard CEO Mike McCue told me yesterday that two million people have connected their Google Reader accounts to the Flipboard visual news apps. So you have to imagine it’s probably an order of magnitude larger than two million.

(By the way, many people involved with the product agree that it wasn’t just tech news fanatics who loved the service, but politics junkies and mommy bloggers and anyone who likes to mainline fresh content from their preferred outlets.)

Nick Baum, one of the original Reader product managers who’s no longer at Google, noted that in the early days of the product there were “several millions” of weekly active users.

In a conversation this weekend, Baum said, ”My sense is, if it’s a consumer product at Google that’s not making money, unless it’s going to get to 100 million users it’s not worth doing.”

But Baum left the team in 2007 — before the rise of Twitter — and he notes Google never put the resources in to do things like help new Google Reader users find feeds to follow and parse the most interesting content from high-volume outlets.

The irony, Baum said, is that if Google Reader were out seeking venture funding in Silicon Valley with its high-value audience, it most likely would have gotten it. “As a startup they would have been perfectly viable,” he said. Not to mention, startups don’t have to worry about compliance issues.

“Someday someone will do something in this space that will work,”  Baum said. “And maybe then Google will buy them.”

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In the wake of growing debates over mobile privacy, the US Federal Trade Commission has urged mobile platform and app developers to make users aware of what personal information is being collected and how it's being used. In a new report, the FTC notes that mobile devices "facilitate unprecedented amounts of data collection," since they're virtually always turned on and carried with a single user. To stop information from being collected and spread without users' knowledge or consent, the FTC says platforms and developers should require agreement when sensitive information like geolocation is accessed, and that they should consider doing the same for less sensitive but still personal data like photos or contacts.

That last point is an...

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The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has released the first draft of a new web standard aimed at improving online privacy. The W3C’s new Standard for Online Privacy is a set of tools that will ultimately enable your browser to stop sites from tracking your every move on the web.

The first draft of the new privacy standard revolves around the “Do Not Track” (DNT) HTTP header originally introduced by Mozilla as a part of Firefox 4. The DNT header — a bit of code sent every time your browser talks to a web server — can be used to tell websites you don’t want to be tracked. The goal is to give you an easy way to opt out of often invasive tracking practices like behavioral advertising.

Behavior advertising refers to the increasingly common practice of tracking your online behavior and using it to tailor ads to your habits. Advertisers use cookies to follow you around the web, tracking which sites you visit, what you buy and even, in the case of mobile browsers, where you go.

Some web browsers, including Internet Explorer and Chrome, offer an opt-out mechanism in the form of a cookie — add the cookie to your browser and participating sites won’t track your browsing. While the cookie-based approach is widely supported by advertisers, if you ever clear your browser’s cookies for any reason, your privacy settings are lost.

Mozilla’s original “Do Not Track” tool offered the same end result — broadcasting your privacy settings to advertiser’s servers — but instead of using a cookie, Mozilla’s DNT effort created a new HTTP header. The header offers a more robust and permanent solution than cookies and it’s easier for users to control via a simple browser preference.

Mozilla's basic overview of how the DNT header might work

Earlier this year Mozilla turned its DNT efforts over to the W3C where the Tracking Protection Working Group was formed. The working group thus far includes everyone from the major browser vendors to large websites like Google and Facebook. Consumer advocacy groups like Consumer Watchdog, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and even the U.S. Federal Trade Commission are also participating. This first draft of the new privacy standard is the groups’ first public release.

The new spec goes quite a bit further than Mozilla’s original definition of DNT, including sections to define how the header is transmitted, what URI servers should use to respond and how websites are to comply with the preference. Obviously, because this is just the first draft there are still many gaps in the spec.

The new privacy spec is only a first draft, but that’s not the main problem currently stopping DNT from becoming a real-world way to protect your privacy. The real problem is the advertisers. While many are already on board with the new DNT standard, so far few actually obey it. Skeptics often argue that the DNT header won’t truly protect your privacy because there’s no way to force advertising sites to obey it. That is true, and there will no doubt always be some bad apples on the web, but the advertising industry has a surprisingly good track record of self-regulation. Much of that record no doubt stems from fear that, without some degree of self-regulation, governments will step in to impose their own regulation on behalf of consumers.

The W3C’s new privacy standard effort is a long way from finished, and, because it relies on the voluntary participation of advertisers, it will likely never completely protect your privacy. Still, it’s a stronger means of opting out than cookies. Moreover, the existence of an official DNT standard blessed by the W3C just might convince more advertisers to support the initiative.

[Footprints photo by Vinoth Chandar/Flickr/CC]

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