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TECHNOLOGY

Google on the Defensive Over Privacy Changes

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Google may have blacked out its logo to protest piracy legislation, but it's moving full steam ahead to track user data despite privacy concerns.(Screen Shot)

Google’s announcement on Tuesday that it plans to track users as they move from one Google product to another once again has the company on the defensive over its privacy policies--and it may prompt new scrutiny from federal authorities.

Google said that once users sign into one of its services such as Gmail, it will track and collect information as they move to other Google sites such as YouTube or its search page. “In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product, and engineering, wrote in a blog post

 

The company has come under increased attention after a privacy settlement last year with the Federal Trade Commission on privacy concerns over the rollout of Google's now-defunct social-networking service Buzz. The commission said that Google engaged in deceptive practices when it automatically signed Gmail users up for Buzz without users’ consent.

“Google finally dropped pretending it is concerned about protecting privacy. Winning its battle against Facebook to remain king of the Web requires it to escalate the digital data arms race,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, told National Journal on Wednesday via e-mail. “This move requires both the [European Union] and FTC to scrutinize closely how Google’s new approach increases threats to our online privacy.” 

An FTC spokeswoman declined comment on whether Google’s proposed changes, set to take effect on March 1, run counter to the company’s privacy settlement with the commission. 

 

Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer argued that Google should at the very least give users the choice to opt out of being tracked across all Google’s platforms. “Indeed, the industry standard should be opt in, so that we can protect our privacy as we see fit,” Steyer said in a statement. “Unfortunately, if Google users really care about online privacy, it looks like their only option is to move to Europe.” 

The European Commission unveiled proposals to streamline and toughen its privacy rules on Wednesday. The proposed changes include requiring companies that do business in Europe or offer a service or website to Europeans to get express consent from European users before collecting or using sensitive data about them. 

Chester said he assumes the FTC is looking at the issue closely. Either way, he said it is likely that privacy advocates will file a formal complaint with the commission. Chester’s group and others joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center in filing the complaint with the FTC that led to the settlement over Google Buzz. EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said that his group will ask the FTC to investigate whether Google’s proposed changes are consistent with the Google-FTC settlement. It required Google to develop a comprehensive privacy program, agree to periodic third-party audits of its privacy practices for two decades, and build privacy protections into its products.

And EPIC recently called on the FTC to include an examination of Google’s new personalized search product in the commission’s antitrust investigation of the company.

 

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., cochairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and a frequent critic of Google’s privacy policies, questioned Google’s proposed changes but didn’t call for the FTC to investigate. “Google’s plan to change its privacy policy raises important questions about how much control Google users will have over their personal information," he said. 

Google did not have any immediate comment on concerns over its proposed changes, but in her blog post, Whitten appeared to anticipate the latest uproar. “We try hard to be transparent about the information we collect, and to give you meaningful choices about how it is used,” she wrote.

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