Congress, EU to Google: Not So Fast With That New Privacy Policy

Posted by · February 3, 2012 1:02 pm

Google 的貼牌冰箱(Google refrigerator)

Ever since unveiling its “simpler, more intuitive” privacy policy last week, Google has been bombarded by a seemingly endless wave of criticism and concern from consumers and privacy advocates alike. Though the new policy has been pitched to Google users as a way to consolidate their 60-plus privacy documents into an experience that’s “more consistent, easier to read and easier to understand,” such improved legibility quickly clued users into the hidden costs of increased convenience.

While the idea of being treated as “a single user across all [Google] products” and enjoying “a simpler, more intuitive Google experience” might sound appealing on its face, the compulsory nature of the transition to a single privacy policy quickly reveals that Google users are not the primary beneficiaries of such a switch.

By forcing all of its users to surrender control of the information they’ve submitted to the individual Google-owned services, the web giant plans to use its one-size-fits-all privacy policy to collect, store and combine user information every time users log into a Google-owned website or use an Android-powered device. Worse yet, the new policy forces users to consent to Google using that information to track their location, send cookies that monitor web activity to their various devices, as well as collect “device-specific information” from user devices.

In other words, in exchange for a single, easy-to-read policy, Google may now help itself to any and all user information—information that users have intentionally provided on some Google-owned services but not others—and use it as it pleases, all with no option to opt out other than closing all accounts on every Google-owned site.

Since a group of U.S. lawmakers announced last Friday that they intend to investigate Google’s new privacy policy in light of an earlier settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, the pressure on Google has only increased.

Despite going “great lengths to clarify its revamped privacy policy,” writes Engadget’s Amar Toor, Google has since been asked by EU regulators to “pause” its rollout of the new privacy policy, which is currently set to go into effect March 1st.

“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,” wrote the Article 29 Working Party—the EU independent regulatory group that oversees data protection—in a letter to Google CEO Larry Page.

“We wish to check the possible consequences for the protection of the personal data of these citizens in a coordinated way,” the letter continued. “In light of the above, we call for a pause in the interests of ensuring that there can be no misunderstanding about Google’s commitments to information rights of their users and EU citizens, until we have completed our analysis.”

(UPDATE: Google Won’t Delay New Privacy Policy Despite EU Concerns)

Meanwhile, The Hill reports that a similar process is under way in the United States, though not quite as aggressive as the one in the EU.

According to the report, members of Congress “grilled” Google officials on the new privacy policy on Thursday. For more than two hours, Pablo Chavez, Google’s director of public policy, and Michael Young, a Google senior counsel, took questions from members of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

After the meeting, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, chairwoman of the committee, expressed her disappointment with the responses that the panel got from the Google officials.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think their answers to us were very forthcoming necessarily in what this really means for the safety of our families and our children,” Mack told reporters.

More specifically, Rep. Mack’s concerns had to do with the idea that Google’s newer, simpler privacy policy “is actually more complicated” and, as such, expressed considerable concern about the lack of control the new policy leaves in the hands of users who don’t want all of their information to be shared with Google.

When asked whether users will have the ability to delete data that the company has already collected about them or how long Google can retain that information, Rep. Mack said that the Google officials were less than forthcoming. Despite the “growing angst” on Capitol Hill surrounding privacy concerns, however, the only measurable progress made thus far is a plan to hold more hearings this year.

Perhaps by the time the EU finishes its investigation and installs some form of sanctions against Google’s new policy, Congress will finally be ready to announce an investigation of its own.

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