Google Responds to Lawmakers' Privacy Policy Concerns

  |  January 27, 2012   |  Comments

Legislators asked Google to respond to detailed questions about changes to its privacy policies.

Google was on the hot seat yesterday as online privacy concerns swirled in Washington, D.C., where the Data Privacy Day event was held. A group of lawmakers sent Google CEO Larry Page a letter requesting responses to several detailed questions about changes the firm made to its privacy policies on January 24.

This week Google said that starting March 1, 60 of the more than 70 privacy policies associated with its various platforms and services will be boiled down to one, simpler policy. Through the consolidation, cross-platform data tracking that already exists for Google is made more transparent.

"In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," wrote Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google in the initial post introducing the policy changes.

The changes are intended to make "things simpler and we’re trying to be upfront about it. Period," stated Betsy Masiello, Google's policy manager, on the firm's Public Policy Blog yesterday, in a post entitled, "Setting the record straight about our privacy policy changes."

For years legislators, privacy advocates, and the Federal Trade Commission have suggested that companies like Google simplify their privacy policies. In consolidating policies associated with various Google products, it stands to reason the company believed it was satisfying such requests. Some privacy watchdogs and legislators didn't see it that way. The announcement spurred outcries including a letter from eight House Members, including Joe Barton, Edward Markey, Jackie Speier, and Cliff Stearns, each of whom have sponsored privacy bills.

The missive asked why Google made the changes, and requested responses to questions about what types of data the company will track and across which platforms, as well as how the data is protected and how it is used.

"While Google suggests that the purpose of this shift in policy is to make the consumer experience simpler, we want to make sure it does not make protecting consumer privacy more complicated," stated the letter.

"We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service and that the ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward," it continued. Responses are due by February 16.

Google's answer on the call for more opt-out control: don't log in. "If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to 'off the record,' control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer," noted Masiello in the public policy post. She also stressed that Google is not collecting more data than it already did.

Google has already merged data across platforms in some cases; for instance, the company can already send someone a meeting reminder based on their location and Google Calendar data. Now, interactions with other products including YouTube will be included in the cross-platform tracking.

"I plan to ask the Federal Trade Commission whether Google's planned changes to its privacy policy violate Google's recent settlement with the agency," said Markey in another statement referencing the firm's settlement over its Google Buzz product. The settlement prohibits Google from "future privacy misrepresentations."


Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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