Lawmakers not liking Google's privacy changes

Nathan Pensky · February 3, 2012 · Short URL:

Changes to Google's privacy policy raising eyebrows at EU, US Congress

As many of you probably know by now, Google recently made changes to its privacy policies, across all of its services from gmail to search to YouTube. But European Union (EU) officials are saying, "Not so fast." EU regulators have formally requested that Google pause the rollout of its new privacy policies so that it can investigate the implications of these changes before they go live worldwide on March 1.

The Article 29 Working Party, an EU regulatory body, called for a delay to the implementation of Google's new privacy policy.

Privacy regulator Jacob Kohnstamm, who is the chairman of Article 29 Working Party, drafted a letter to Google CEO Larry Page, asking that the changes be delayed so that EU officials can "check the possible consequences for the protection of the personal data of these citizens in a co-ordinated way."

"Given the wide range of services you offer, and the popularity of these services, changes in your privacy policy may affect many citizens in most or all of the EU member states," continued Kohnstamm, in his letter. European commissioner in charge of data protection, Viviane Reding, praised these regulators' request.

For their part, Google representatives have expressed surprise but also compliance. "We briefed most of the members of the working party in the weeks leading up to our announcement," said Al Verney, a Google spokesman in Brussels. "None of them expressed substantial concerns at the time, but of course we're happy to speak with any data protection authority that has questions."

And European lawmakers aren't the only ones openly questioning Google's new privacy laws. Some American legislators have also asked that the policy be clarified.

One Congressional member Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) drafted an open letter to Google, in which several concerns about these privacy changes were detailed. The letter was signed by seven other members of Congress.

Members of the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee met with Google Deputy General Counsel Mike Yang Thursday, to discuss the privacy changes. The talks apparently didn't resolve much, and some Congressional members were openly critical of the company's lack of transparency.

“[Google] danced around actual details, and instead spoke in generalities, highlighting their efforts to ‘enhance the user experience’ -- but at what cost?" said Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX).

“At the end of the day, ultimately, I don’t think that their answers to us were very forthcoming necessarily in what this really means for the safety of our families and our children and ourselves,” said subcommittee chairwoman Mary Bono Mack (R-CA).

Whether these complaints were due to Google's inability to explain the new policies, or the Congressional members' general lack of tech savvy is, of course, not something we can know, as the sessions were conducted behind closed doors. (But somehow, I get an image of me trying to explain to my grandmother how to use email...)

What are the Google privacy policy changes?

On January 24, Google announced on its blog it would be condensing more than 60 different privacy policies across its several services into one overreaching document.

According to Google, what the privacy changes entail is that a user's data will be used across the company's various platforms, in order to enhance services.

The example used by the company's demo was, say a user searches the word "Jaguar." Based on how this word has been used in other Google services like Gmail, the search engine would know that said user means the animal rather than the automobile.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” said the Google blog post. Of course, this clearer picture of the user also means a clearer demographical profile for Google to target with their ad platform.

Other good explanations of the privacy changes can be found at Boing Boing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The change that most has people worried is that use of information in private email messages in the optimization of in more public services, like search. Google addresses this and other concerns in a blog post Thursday, breaking down user (and lawmaker) concerns in "myths" and "facts."

According to the links attached to these so-called "myths," most have been perpetuated by none other than competitor in the search and email space, Microsoft. Microsoft has voiced its concern over Google's privacy policies, which just happen to coincide with their economic interests, in their own blog post.

“The changes Google announced make it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information,” said Microsoft. “We take a different approach – we work to keep you safe and secure online, to give you control over your data, and to offer you the choice of saving your information on your hard drive, in the cloud, or on both.”

To learn more about what you can do to maximize your Web privacy, check out the EFF's "Six Tips to Protect Your Search Privacy."

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