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Google's Congress Problem

No matter how hard it tries, it appears Google has yet to convince members of Congress that its proposed privacy changes are not as troubling as they appear to some on the surface.

Google Deputy General Counsel Mike Yang and Public Policy Director Pablo Chavez met Thursday with about 10 members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, which has jurisdiction over consumer privacy, to address concerns over the changes the company plans to make to its privacy policies on March 1.

Last week, the company said it plans to consolidate its numerous privacy policies but also will track users and collect data about them as they move from one Google product to another. In addition to the briefing, Google issued yet another blog post Wednesday about the privacy changes in which it tried to debunk what it described as myths about its approach to privacy.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., who organized the closed-door briefing, told reporters that while Google did a thorough job of explaining the changes and the tools available to consumers to control the level of privacy they want, she and other members were not satisfied with everything they heard.

"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," she said. "At the same time, they did a thorough walk through of the technology that exists and explained how they feel they can still protect privacy to whatever level the consumer wants. I think the concern in Congress is how much active participation does a user have to do to protect their privacy."

She said that when members asked about why Google wasn't offering consumers a clear opt-out of having data collected about them, the Google officials pointed to the various privacy control tools such as Google Dashboard. Bono Mack said she and other committee members continue to worry that these tools are "too complicated to find, too complicated to do."

Despite such concerns, Bono Mack gave little indication that the committee plans to do much more at this point other than hold more hearings this year on consumer privacy and continue to press Google for better answers.

A Bono Mack aide noted that Google officials have said they do not think the privacy changes violate the privacy settlement it reached last year with the Federal Trade Commission over the roll out of its now-defunct social networking service Buzz. He noted that panel, however, plans to reach out to the FTC itself for clarification on the issue. So far, the FTC has declined to comment on the issue.

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