Google's new telephone service, Google Voice, is receiving generally positive reviews from industry analysts. Some of the features, however, are raising potentially troubling legal issues.
Nearly two years ago, Google bought Grand Central, an Internet-based phone service, and opened it up to a limited number of beta testers. Over the following months, users got increasingly impatient with the lack of new features or upgrades to the service.
It turns out, however, that Grand Central was merely on hold as Google undertook a complete revamping of the service to better integrate it into the Google universe. Current users and new subscribers will be able to read transcripts and search text of their voice mails, make low-cost overseas calls and free calls within the United States, set up free conference calls, and redirect both calls and text messages to up to six different numbers at the same time.
But not surprisingly, given Google's increasingly dominant online profile, the news that the company is doing for voice what it's done for virtually every other type of data has raised questions about both privacy and legality. Critics are worried about yet another data stream flowing through the Google server farms.
Scanning Phone Calls
In a widely reported interview, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the new service raises worrisome issues. "It raises two distinct problems," he said. "In the privacy world, it is increased profiling and tracking of users without safeguards. But the other problem is the growing consolidation of Internet-based services around one dominant company."
Since even Google hasn't figured out how to repeal the laws of economics, the obvious question is how the company will be able to support the undeniably attractive offer of free telephone calls, voice-mail transcriptions, and so on. As with other Google services, the answer is likely to be context-driven advertisements.
Given the announcement this week that the company will start plumbing Web search history in an effort to provide more targeted advertising, the likelihood that phone calls will be similarly scanned has many people nervous.
The other obvious issue is the legality of recording conversations. Google Voice plays a message before turning on the tapes (or firing up the hard drive), but it's not hard to imagine someone missing the announcement. In roughly half the states, a conversation can be taped secretly as long as one person consents (i.e., you can record any conversation to which you are a party). In the remainder of the states, the consent (implicit or explicit) of everyone in the conversation is required.
And what about the transcribed voice mails? It's inevitable that at some point, someone will try to introduce a Google voice mail into evidence in a legal proceeding. As Google makes itself the holder and preserver of more and more of the world's information, perhaps the next service to roll out will be Google Courts.