Google Responds to Congressional Group’s Privacy Inquiry, Microsoft Launches Ad Campaign
The House group (Reps. Henry A. Waxman, Cliff Stearns, Edward J. Markey, Joe Barton, Diana DeGette, Marsha Blackburn, G.K. Butterfield and Jackie Speier) had asked Google CEO Larry Page to answer a series of questions about the company’s Jan. 24, 2012 announcement that it planned to consolidate its privacy policies on March 1 and that under its new policy, “if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services.” Their letter to Mr. Page included 11 detailed questions addressing a broad range of Google’s data-collection and -management practices and expressed a particular interest in the ability of consumers to opt out of Google’s cross-service data sharing.
- No login required for many products — “users will still be able to use many of our products – such as Google Search and YouTube – without having to log into their Google Account or having to create one in the first place.”[Footnote 1]
- Search history control – “users who log in can use the search history settings to edit or delete their search histories or turn off the product entirely. So a user who doesn’t want search history used for other products can simply delete it or turn it off, consistent with our longstanding commitment to user control.”
- Use of multiple accounts — “users can set up multiple accounts to manage multiple identities, move data between those accounts with Data Liberation tools, and prevent information from one account being used to personalize another account.”
According to Mr. Chavez, the changes to Google’s privacy policies[Footnote 2] were motivated by two goals, simplicity and improved user experience, a point he made both in his Jan. 30 letter and in a Jan. 31, 2012 blog post accompanying the release of Google’s formal response:
First, we’re trying to make them simpler and more understandable, which is something that lawmakers and regulators have asked technology companies to do. By folding more than 60 product-specific privacy policies into our main Google one, we’re explaining our privacy commitments to users of those products in 85% fewer words.
Second, we want to make our users’ experience seamless and easy by allowing more sharing of information among products when users are signed into their Google Accounts. In other words, we want to make more of your information available to you when you’re signed into Google services.
Most of our product-specific privacy policies allowed for sharing of information across products with a Google Account prior to this change. A few did not. Specifically, our policies meant that we couldn’t combine data from YouTube and search history with other Google products and services to make them better. So if a user who likes to cook searches for recipes on Google, we are not able to recommend cooking videos when that user visits YouTube, even though he is signed in to the same Google Account when using both. We want to change that so we can create a simpler, more intuitive Google experience – to share more of each user’s information with that user as they use various Google services.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Microsoft has a different take on Google’s privacy changes, noting in a post yesterday on The Official Microsoft Blog that “[t]he changes Google announced make it harder, not easier, for people to stay in control of their own information.” The company also announced the launch of an ad campaign promoting its own products as alternatives. Titled “Putting people first,” the ad (which reportedly appeared yesterday in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other newspapers) disputes Google’s claim that its privacy changes are designed to help users:
Google is in the process of making some unpopular changes to some of their most popular products. Those changes, cloaked in language like “transparency,” “simplicity” and “consistency,” are really about one thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between everything you search, send, say or stream while using one of their services.
But, the way they’re doing it is making it harder for you to maintain control of your personal information. Why are they so interested in doing this that they would risk this kind of backlash? One logical reason: Every data point they collect and connect to you increases how valuable you are to an advertiser.
Google responded to Microsoft with a blog post yesterday titled “Busting myths about our approach to privacy,” asserting: “Our privacy controls have not changed. Period.”
Google’s response to the House group effectively puts the ball back in the legislators’ court. Next steps? A hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee (seven of the eight authors of the House letter are members) or one of its subcommittees is a distinct possibility. And the FTC is certainly watching developments with great interest — Rep. Markey has said he will ask the FTC to take a look at whether the changes violate Google’s 2011 settlement with the FTC; the Electronic Privacy Information Center has asked the FTC to examine the competition and privacy implications of Google’s Jan. 10, 2012 introduction of “Search, plus Your World” (integrating the Google+ social network into Google’s search results); and Bloomberg reported on Jan. 13, 2012 that the FTC will expand its antitrust investigation of Google to include “Search, plus Your World.”
1 [Back to Post] According to Mr. Chavez, under the new policy, users will be able to use the following products and services without logging in: Web Search, Google Chrome, iGoogle, Toolbar, Mobile, Maps for Mobile, Search for Mobile, YouTube, Books, Images, News, Videos, Picasa, Picnik, Google, Offers, Maps, Earth, Panoramio, SketchUp, Sites, Translate, Google+, Blogger, Groups, Knol, Orkut, Blog Search, Custom Search, Patent Search, Product Search, Finance, Scholar, Trends, Code, Chrome OS and Android.
2 [Back to Post] Google will maintain product-specific privacy notices for Google Wallet, Google Books and Chrome, and will keep standalone privacy policies or notices for AdMob, BeatThatQuote, CleverSense, Google Jobs, Google Health, InviteMedia, Location Services in Firefox, reCAPTCHA, Teracent, The Dealmap and Zagat.