Giving users the best answer, and competing fair and square in travel search

Since we announced our plans to acquire ITA Software in July, we’ve spent a lot of time talking with players in the online travel industry -- airlines, travel agents, and search sites -- about our plans to build better flight search tools for users, and our commitment to competition in this space.

We’ve been encouraged by the travel industry support we’ve seen for this acquisition -- from airlines, online travel agencies, and also ITA’s competitors. Even longtime travel guru Arthur Frommer has weighed in. That said, it’s disappointing that a number of travel companies have today announced their concerns about the deal.

Our reason for making this acquisition is simple: ITA will help us provide better results for our users. When someone searches for “flights from San Francisco to London,” we'd like to provide not just “ten blue links” but exact flight times and prices as well -- just as our competitors do today.

We’ve already been experimenting with similar results in different areas. For example, in March we began showing hotel prices in Google Maps -- information which not only makes travel planning and budgeting easier for our users, but also improves the quality of the leads we send to travel websites and hotels:

In terms of the criticisms that have been made today, while we respect the views of these companies there are a few important areas where we need to set the record straight:

Claim: The deal could result in higher travel prices or fewer travel choices for consumers.
Fact: ITA and Google are not competitors so there will not be less choice for consumers. In addition, ITA does not set ticket prices or sell tickets, but merely analyzes data about seat availability and fares -- which are set by airlines -- and provides that analysis to websites. So it’s hard to see why it would result in higher prices. In fact, by acquiring ITA we hope to build flight comparison tools that make it easier for users to compare prices and find the best possible deal.

Claim: ITA powers most of the web’s most popular travel sites.
Fact: ITA’s QPX tool powers many websites; that’s why we’ve said that we’ll honor all of ITA’s existing agreements, and that we are enthusiastic about adding new partners. That said, the three most popular travel sites in the U.S. (Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity) use data provided by ITA's competitors. And over the past few months other travel companies have highlighted the alternatives to ITA. Kayak's CEO called Expedia’s Best Fare Search alternative "awesome" and Continental Airlines noted that "there are alternatives to the [ITA] shopping solution in the marketplace, both internally and externally.”

Claim: Google will be choosing winners and losers in online travel.
Fact: Our goal is to build tools that drive more traffic to airline and online travel agency sites where customers can purchase tickets. We also believe that giving users better ways to search for flights online will encourage more users to make their flight purchases online, which will create more overall online sales for airlines and travel agencies. Google does not plan to sell airline tickets directly.

Claim: Instead of buying ITA, Google could just license its data.
Fact: We think we can make more significant innovations and bigger breakthroughs in online flight search for consumers by combining our engineering expertise with ITA’s than we would by just licensing ITA's data service.

Claim: The deal will lead to less innovation in travel search.
Fact: Just the opposite! Today, finding the right flight at the best price is a frustrating experience; pricing and availability change constantly, and even a simple two-city itinerary involves literally thousands of different options. We’re confident that by combining ITA’s expertise in travel with Google’s technology we’ll be able to create great innovations in flight search.

Creating stronger privacy controls inside Google

(Cross-posted on the Official Google Blog)

In May we announced that we had mistakenly collected unencrypted WiFi payload data (information sent over networks) using our Street View cars. We work hard at Google to earn your trust, and we’re acutely aware that we failed badly here. So we’ve spent the past several months looking at how to strengthen our internal privacy and security practices, as well as talking to external regulators globally about possible improvements to our policies. Here’s a summary of the changes we’re now making.
  • First, people: we have appointed Alma Whitten as our director of privacy across both engineering and product management. Her focus will be to ensure that we build effective privacy controls into our products and internal practices. Alma is an internationally recognized expert in the computer science field of privacy and security. She has been our engineering lead on privacy for the last two years, and we will significantly increase the number of engineers and product managers working with her in this new role.

  • Second, training: All our employees already receive orientation training on Google’s privacy principles and are required to sign Google’s Code of Conduct, which includes sections on privacy and the protection of user data. However, to ensure we do an even better job, we’re enhancing our core training for engineers and other important groups (such as product management and legal) with a particular focus on the responsible collection, use and handling of data. In addition, starting in December, all our employees will also be required to undertake a new information security awareness program, which will include clear guidance on both security and privacy.

  • Third, compliance: While we’ve made important changes to our internal compliance procedures in the last few years, we need to make further changes to reflect the fact that we are now a larger company. So we’re adding a new process to our existing review system, in which every engineering project leader will be required to maintain a privacy design document for each initiative they are working on. This document will record how user data is handled and will be reviewed regularly by managers, as well as by an independent internal audit team.
We believe these changes will significantly improve our internal practices (though no system can of course entirely eliminate human error), and we look forward to seeing the innovative new security and privacy features that Alma and her team develop. That said, we’ll be constantly on the lookout for additional improvements to our procedures as Google grows, and as we branch out into new fields of computer science.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to update one point in my May blog post. When I wrote it, no one inside Google had analyzed in detail the data we had mistakenly collected, so we did not know for sure what the disks contained. Since then a number of external regulators have inspected the data as part of their investigations (seven of which have now been concluded). It’s clear from those inspections that while most of the data is fragmentary, in some instances entire emails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords. We want to delete this data as soon as possible, and I would like to apologize again for the fact that we collected it in the first place. We are mortified by what happened, but confident that these changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users.

This Internet is Your Internet: Digital Citizenship from California to Washtenaw County

(Cross-posted on the Google Online Security Blog)

In the physical world, basic safety measures are second-nature to almost everyone (look both ways, stop drop and roll!). In the digital world, however, many of us expect security to be handled on our behalf by experts, or come in a single-box solution. Together, we must reset those expectations.

The Internet is the biggest neighborhood in the world. Security-related initiatives in the technology sector and government play an important role in making the Internet safer, but efforts from Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. alone are not enough. Much of the important work that needs to be done must happen closer to home—wherever that may be.

As part of National Cyber Security Awareness Month I recently traveled from California to Washtenaw County, MI to speak to group of local community leaders, educators, business owners, law enforcement officials and residents who recently formed the Washtenaw Cyber Citizenship Coalition. They are working to create a digitally aware, knowledgeable and more secure community by providing residents with the tools and resources to be good digital citizens. No one in the room self-identified as a “cyber security expert,” but the information sharing that’s happening in Washtenaw County is the kind of holistic effort that can enable everyone to use the Internet more safely and benefit from the great opportunities that it provides.

The Washtenaw Cyber Citizenship Coalition is channeling the community’s efforts through volunteer workgroups in areas such as public/private partnerships, awareness, education and law enforcement. Their strategy is to “share the wheel" whenever possible, instead of recreating it. They’ve collected tips and resources for kids, parents, businesses, educators and crime victims so that citizens can find and access these materials with ease.

If you are interested in raising awareness in your own community,, and are examples of sites that offer such materials for public use.

More transparency and control over location

(Cross-posted on the Official Google Blog)

We’ve always focused on offering people the most relevant results. Location is one important factor we’ve used for many years to customize the information that you find. For example, if you’re searching for great restaurants, you probably want to find ones near you, so we use location information to show you places nearby.

Today we’re moving your location setting to the left-hand panel of the results page to make it easier for you to see and control your preferences. With this new display you’re still getting the same locally relevant results as before, but now it’s much easier for you to see your location setting and make changes to it.

Your location setting is now always visible on the left side of the search results page.

We do our best to automatically detect the most useful location, but we don’t always get it right—so in some cases you’ll want to change the setting. At other times, you may want to change your location to explore information relevant to another area. For example, let’s say you’re at work in Mountain View and you’re making plans to see a movie in San Francisco (a common occurrence here at Google). You can change your location to “San Francisco” and search for [showtimes] to find movie listings in San Francisco or search for [restaurants] to find places to eat before the show. Similarly, if you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, you can change the location to “Honolulu” and start exploring the [weather], [hotels] and of course the [beaches]. The location you set can be as specific as a particular zip code or as general as an entire country, but more specific settings generally lead to better search results.

Click “Change location” to specify your location preference.

You used to be able to see and control your location settings, but it was a little clunky. To see your settings, you could click “View customizations” on the results page and to modify them you could click “Change location” next to a variety of search results, such as maps and movie listings. As time has gone by, more and more locally relevant information has come online, whether it’s local business listings or a blog from your hometown. Meanwhile, Google has become much better at presenting this locally relevant content—so it felt like the right time to make this setting easier to find.

The new interface is rolling out now and will be available in more than 40 languages soon. We’re not changing anything about how we use location information to improve search, so it doesn’t change our existing privacy policies. To learn more about our new interface and how we use location in search, check out our help center.

Easy tips to control your privacy

Google Product Manager Jonathan McPhie was in DC recently to meet with privacy advocates, academics and members of the media to help spread the word about our new Privacy Tools page on the Google Privacy Center. While in town we asked Jonathan to explain some simple ways you can take control of your own privacy when using Google. Check out the video.

Discussing free expression at Internet at Liberty 2010

(Cross-posted on the Official Google Blog)

It’s not often that we get to step out of our everyday jobs and spend extended time engaging in global conversations about one of our fundamental values at Google: ensuring access to information. For three days last week in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, we had that chance when more than 300 bloggers, activists, academics, government officials and representatives of non-profits and business convened for “Internet at Liberty 2010.” The conference, which we co-hosted with the Central European University, focused on “the promise and peril of online free expression” and the role of individuals, corporations and government in protecting free expression online.

The conference drew participants from 74 countries, including many from places where free expression is constantly under threat—such as Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. It drew a large contingent of bloggers and activists from the Middle East and representatives from both the Iranian and Chinese diasporas. Our liveblog of the conference was followed by more than 3.3 million people around the world.

The issues at the heart of the gathering—and the challenges faced by free expression advocates the world over, were highlighted by our senior vice president, David Drummond, when in his opening remarks to the conference he quoted an email from an activist who could not obtain permission to attend “Internet at Liberty.” The activist wrote:
Everywhere I turned, I was only talking to a repetition of the same monomaniac mind where all the keywords around the conference were defined as dangerous and forbidden: ‘liberty,’ ‘access,’ ‘Internet,’ ‘Google,’ and even such simple words as ‘university,’ ‘conference’ and ‘Europe.’ Upon a second investigation, I realized that they are not afraid of these things because of their intrinsic identity, but because they can transform me from a passive and obedient member of the mass to a free, critical, creative and active citizen.
Also at the conference, we introduced Google Transparency Report, an interactive online site that allows users to see where governments are demanding that we remove content and where Google services are being blocked. (Read more in our blog post.) Other sessions included a debate on the question, “Is the potential of the Internet as a force for positive political change being oversold?” and workshops offering practical education and tools for lobbying governments on key issues.

Visit our website for the conference, which we plan to turn into a discussion and action forum for those who attended the conference and—we hope—thousands more. Our aim is to bring together people who share the common goal of promoting free expression on the Internet. We want to build constituencies behind key initiatives including helping individuals protect themselves online; promoting corporate and government transparency; finding the right balance between privacy and free expression; and making sure that platforms like Google aren’t held liable for content they host.

We’re committed to reaching far beyond the results of the Budapest conference and the banks of the Danube to help ensure that online free expression, like the Internet itself, knows no borders.