Google defends privacy changes as questions mount

John P. Mello Jr., TechHive
31 January, 2012
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Following a flurry of criticism over its privacy policy revamp, Google is attempting to clear up misconceptions about its actions.

Users still have control over what information Google sees; Google is not collecting any more data about users than it has in the past; and users can use as much or as little as they want of Google, Google Policy Manager Betsy Masiello declares in a company blog last week.

She explains that a number of Google services — search, maps, and YouTube, for example — can be used without persons identifying themselves through a login. For services that require logins, a number of tools and options are available to reduce the data being collected by Google.

Google isn’t collecting more data from its users under the new policy, Masiello maintains. “Our new policy simply makes it clear that we use data to refine and improve your experience on Google–whichever products or services you use,” she writes. “This is something we have already been doing for a long time.”

“We’re making things simpler and we’re trying to be upfront about it,” she adds. “Period.”

Not everyone buys Google’s “simpler” line. In the U.S. Congress, for example, leading privacy advocated in both the House and Senate have vowed to take a closer look at the impact of the policy changes on consumer privacy.

One of those advocates went even further. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) has called on U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the policy changes violate Google’s privacy agreement made with the FTC earlier this year.

Google was also initially rapped by an independent watchdog of the federal cloud, SafeGov.org, for creating privacy risks for government workers with the new policies. Google quickly responded that the new policies do not apply to government workers using Google Apps. That, though, raised the question that if the policies could put the privacy of government workers at risk, then might they also put the privacy of rank-and-file users at risk as well?

While Google is touting its policy changes as a good thing for users, others argue that the real beneficiaries of the move are advertisers. By consolidating information about its users and refining target audiences for a product, Google can charge more for its advertising, argue critics of the policy.

Moreover, some contend that Google is so blinded by its thirst for advertising revenue that it’s hurting its reason for being: search. In a recent filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission, for example, Google notes “After all, ads are just more answers to users’ queries.” That suggests to some that the Google can’t tell the difference between good search results and spamny ads any more.

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