US Politicians Challenge Google Privacy Policy Change

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Members of the US Congress are questioning Google over sweeping changes in how it handles user privacy

Several US senators on 26 January fired off a bipartisan letter to Google chief executive Larry Page, asking for more information about the search engine provider’s revised privacy policy.

Google on 24 January announced that it will aggregate 60 of its web services under one single privacy policy.


Under this new policy, a user with a Google account who signs into Google’s search, YouTube, Gmail and other applications is treated as the same individual across all of those services, and data may be shared between those services. Consumers may not opt out of this change, which goes into effect on 1 March.

Pundits seized on this change to argue that Google is trampling user privacy rights to aggregate user identity to help it better compete with Facebook for targeted advertising dollars.

Eight US senators took exception to the move. They sent Page their letter, signed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.; Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.; Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Joe Barton, R-Texas; Diana DeGette, D-Colo.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.; and Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

The senators are concerned that consumers cannot opt out of the new policy and wonder whether the plan will adequately protect users’ privacy rights.

They asked how the new rules will affect the tens of millions of users of Android smartphones. Users access a lot of data from Android phones by signing in with their Google accounts. They are also concerned about how the revision affects children and teen users of Google services.

“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 ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward,” they wrote to Page. They want a response by the middle of February.

Privacy protection

Markey added in a separate statement that he plans to ask the Federal Trade Commission whether Google’s new privacy policies violate its settlement with the agency. Google in 2011 settled with the FTC over its Google Buzz social media service, which violated the privacy rights of Gmail users.

As part of the settlement, Google agreed not to misrepresent its privacy practices or change the way it uses or shares consumer data without obtaining consent first.

Google Policy Manager Betsy Masiello sought to clear up concerns in a corporate blog post, where she wrote that Google isn’t collecting any more data on users with the policy change, and that it is trying to simplify access to its products and services.

“You still have choice and control,” Masiello wrote on 26 January. “You don’t need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube.”

She added that logged-in users may still edit or turn off Search history, switch Gmail chat to “off the record”, and control the way Google tailors ads to users’ interests, among other privacy-protection measures.

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