Congressmen remain skeptical of Google privacy changes

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Google went on defense Tuesday in a formal letter and a blog post, responding to a congressional inquiry launched last week after users complained about the company’s change to its privacy policy.

Faced with an outcry from users and lawmakers that Google might no longer be trustworthy, the company asserted that the policy change was enacted because of its simplicity, and to provide a “seamless” user experience.

Florida Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns praised the company’s speedy response, but requested that Google brief Congress on the changes before they take effect on March 1.

“[I]t appears that the new policy would allow Google to apply information it collects from a signed-in user to Google Search and YouTube,” said Stearns in a statement. “While Google clarifies in the letter a number of ways consumers can control their privacy settings, oftentimes consumers remain automatically logged in to Gmail services.”

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey criticized the company Tuesday. “Despite Google’s recent response, it still appears that consumers will not be able to completely opt-out of data collection and information sharing among Google’s services,” said Markey.

The changes “might make good business sense for Google, but it undermines privacy safeguards for consumers,” Markey added.  He said he looks forward “to meeting with Google to get clarification about what the options are for consumers who wish to say no to these new changes.”

Google’s changes were part of an effort to make its privacy policies “simpler and more understandable, which is something that lawmakers and regulators have asked technology companies to do,” wrote Pablo Chavez, director of public policy for Google, on the company’s public policy blog Tuesday.

The company maintains that privacy policy changes do not affect existing user privacy settings.

“By folding more than 60 product-specific privacy policies into our main Google one, we’re explaining our privacy commitments to users of those products in 85% fewer words,” said Chavez.

In a letter to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chavez said that the company is simply bringing the rest of its products into line with the products that already shared user data, which include Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar.

“Historically when we launched (or acquired) a new service, we added a new privacy policy, or left the existing one for that service in place,” said Chavez. “This approach eventually created a wide range of policies.”

Google made a first step in 2010 to consolidate a “dozen service-specific notices” into its main privacy policy, but that move “still left more than 70 notices.” Last week, Chavez stated, the company moved to make its privacy policy much more readable.

“This now gives users one comprehensive document that outlines our privacy commitments across our services,” said Chavez.

An industry source told The Daily Caller the notion of opting-out is a “misnomer” that confuses people, pointing to de facto opt-outs users can already engage in by using different accounts or not signing into their Google account when using the search engine or YouTube.

“We still won’t sell your personal information to advertisers,” wrote Chavez, who said in the letter that Google does not sell users’ personal information, “and that will not change under the updated privacy policy.”

Google settled with the Federal Trade Commission in October 2011 over charges that the company “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises to consumers when it launched its social network, Google Buzz, in 2010.”

Meanwhile, features like “Incognito Mode” in Google’s search browser Google Chrome allow users to adjust how they receive specifically tailored ads, and enables users to tightly control privacy settings.

Users may also use Google’s data liberation tools if they would prefer to close their Google account and take their data elsewhere.

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Josh Peterson