Google accused of biopiracy

First it was China--now it's genetics; the search giant could be in hot water with privacy advocates again.

A coalition has accused search giant Google of being the "biggest threat to genetic privacy" for its alleged plan to create a searchable database of genetic information.

Google was presented with an award as part of the Coalition Against Biopiracy's Captain Hook Awards for Biopiracy in Curitiba, Brazil, this week. The organizers allege that Google's collaboration with genomic research institute J. Craig Venter--to create a searchable online database of all the genes on the planet--is a clear example of biopiracy.

Biopiracy refers to the "monopolization of genetic resources" according to the show's organizers. It is also defined as the unauthorized use of biological resources by organizations such as corporations, universities and governments.

According to the award's Web site, Google is guilty of biopiracy because plans for a searchable database could make it easier for private genetic information to be abused. "Google, in cooperation with Craig Venter, are developing plans to make all of our genomes Googlable to facilitate the brave new world of private genetically tailored medicines," the site claims.

Jim Thomas, from ETC Group, which is one of the organizers behind the awards ceremony, said that Google's recent moves around storing consumer information could land it in hot water with privacy campaigners of all kinds. "The new 'we want to store everyone's information online' mission statement is going to get very controversial if they extend that to genomic information. If Google thinks online privacy is a big can of worms, wait until they realize what they've opened up with the whole genetic privacy debate," he said.

The original source for the alleged collaboration between Google and Venter is "The Google Story," by Pulitzer Prize winner David Vise. However, Google has previously refused to comment on the issue, and Venter has denied any ongoing relationship. Google did not respond to requests for comment.

The search giant is keen to show that it is committed to contributing to . Google recently appointed Larry Brilliant as executive director of to work with the company's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to manage Google's charitable donations and philanthropic strategies.

Brilliant is a physician, epidemiologist and a specialist in international health. He played a key role in the World Health Organization campaign to eradicate smallpox and has also worked for the United Nations in the fields of blindness and polio eradication.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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