Google’s New Privacy Policy Raising Questions in Washington

Google to track users across all products

Google's new privacy policy may not fly in Washington, D.C. The Internet search behemoth announced Tuesday in a blog post that it was consolidating all of its privacy policies for some 70 consumer platforms into one "main policy."

The main policy, which goes into effect March 1, will allow Google to track users of its services across anything Google-related and integrate the delivery of aggregated, anonymous data to advertisers, where Google makes its revenue.

That may make things handy for advertisers, but privacy advocates fear it may represent nothing more than a Trojan horse for consumers who will be unable to escape being tracked anytime they come in contact with anything Google, either on its Android phones or Google's ubiquitous desktop apps, including Gmail, search and its social app, Google+.

"Companies are struggling with how to make privacy data security more tangible to consumers," said Amy Mushahwar, a data and privacy attorney with Reed Smith, in an email to Adweek. "As for the specific information collection enhancements for Google products and services, Google understands that industry and consumer advocates are watching their every move."

In its blog post, Google's director of privacy, product and engineering, Alma Whitten, tells users the change will result in a "simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

Privacy watchers, especially those pushing for privacy policies to be built around an opt-in standard, rather than an opt out, are concerned.

"Google's new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening," said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media, a public interest group, in a press statement. "Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out, especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google search."

Google is already under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which will be auditing and monitoring Google's privacy policies for 20 years. Google is also under investigation into whether or not its search services favor its own products over competitors.

“Google’s plan to change its privacy policy raises important questions about how much control Google users will have over their personal information….As the company continues to flesh out its plans, I look forward to evaluating the changes to ensure consumers' privacy is protected,” said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement.

Google's Whitten stressed that Google is committed to "data liberation."

"If you want to take your information elsewhere, you can. We don’t sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission except in very limited circumstances like a valid court order. We try hard to be transparent about the information we collect and to give you meaningful choices about how it is used—for example, our Ads Preferences Manager enables you to edit the interest categories we advertise against or turn off certain Google ads altogether," Whitten wrote.

Google may be able to dodge regulators for a while as it builds more targeted ad opportunities for advertisers, but eventually, consumers won't buy it. "People can't opt out. It's my way or the digital highway," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "What regulators can do at this point is questionable, but Google is in danger of tarnishing its reputation, and that is troubling for the company in the long run."

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