Who’s watching you? Google, Facebook and internet privacy - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 1 March

Google, the internet’s most popular search engine and one of the world’s largest companies, is to be questioned again about its commitment to protecting users’ privacy rights.

Who's watching you? Google, Facebook and internet privacy

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 1 March 2013

Richard Vaughan

Google, the internet's most popular search engine and one of the world's largest companies, is to be questioned again about its commitment to protecting users' privacy rights.

Nearly five billion searches are tapped into the US company's website every day by users from around the world. Now Google is to be quizzed by officials of the European Union as to why it has not taken "precise measures" to change its privacy policies.

The issue centres around a decision taken by Google in March last year to change its privacy policy to allow it to merge information on users collected from its different platforms. As a result of the move, the company could, for example, collate what it knew about someone signed up to Gmail with what it knew about the same user from their online searches.

In October last year, the EU decided that this was unacceptable and demanded that Google allow users to choose which information was shared across platforms as well as make it easier for people to opt out. However, a recent investigation by privacy regulators revealed that the company had not complied with the requirement.

This standoff opens up a much wider debate about the internet, about how people use it and what information is being captured about them.

It is not just Google. All the information you tap into your Facebook profile is stored by the company, from your marital status and your religious beliefs to your date of birth. Unless you are au fait with the site's privacy settings, anything you say could be broadcast to an audience far larger than you intended.

Even if you listen to some music on Spotify, the online jukebox, your choices will automatically pop up on your Facebook page, revealing your music taste to your friends and family.

These examples may seem trivial, but what would happen if your online searches were monitored and passed to government agencies? It throws up images of a Big Brother even more terrifying than that of George Orwell's novel 1984.

It is all a far cry from what was originally intended for the internet by Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee wanted the internet to be free to everyone, and to allow users to exchange information easily without fear of it being monitored or withheld. All this, he hoped, would bring about a smaller, better connected world.

Today, Berners-Lee is one of many voices championing the principle of "net neutrality", which calls for internet service providers, companies and governments to treat all information passed on the net equally and not to monitor it.

Speaking on the subject in 2011, he said that "threats to the internet, such as companies or governments that interfere with or snoop on internet traffic, compromise basic human network rights".

Some may argue that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to worry about. But as we live more and more of our lives online, doing everything there from socialising and shopping to game-playing and reading, we do so under someone's watchful gaze.


  • Should people have a right to privacy? Why/why not?
  • Can you think of any examples in history when information about people has been monitored and used against them?
  • The world has gone through many changes since Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Does it matter that his original aim – to allow information to be exchanged freely – has also changed? Why/why not?
  • If you invented something today, how would you feel if people adapted it for a different purpose in the future?

Resources for you

Young people and social networking sites

  • Check out TES partner Child Net International's guide for teachers, parents and carers on how to talk to young people about staying safe online.

Internet safety display

  • A handy list of rules on how children and young people can stay safe online and protect their privacy.

Right to privacy

  • A PowerPoint resource looking at the right to privacy, using the USA as an example.

Rights and freedom of expression

  • Explore issues around human rights and freedom of expression with these lesson ideas.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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What does the Pistorius and Steenkamp case reveal about the media’s treatment of women?

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