Google to Congress: We're changing privacy policies, not privacy controls

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Facing pressure from lawmakers over efforts to consolidate its user privacy standards, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) sent a letter to Congress to assuage concerns, maintaining that it is revamping its privacy policies but not changing corresponding controls.

Last week, Google announced plans to connect user data across desktop and mobile services including Google+, Gmail and YouTube, consolidating more than 60 privacy documents into its main Privacy Policy. Separate policies will continue to govern products including the Chrome web browser and the Google Wallet m-commerce platform.

"The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services," Google director of privacy Alma Whitten wrote on the Official Google Blog. "In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

Consumers who log into Google services won't be able to opt out of the revamped guidelines, which has some critics crying foul. "Google's new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening," Common Sense Media chief executive James Steyer told The Washington Post. 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 states its approach to privacy has not changed. "We'll continue to focus on providing transparency, control and security to our users," writes Google director of public policy Pablo Chavez in a Jan. 30 letter addressed to eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives. "In fact, the announcement of changes to our privacy policy is a great example of our effort to lead the industry in transparency. It's been the most extensive user notification effort in Google's history--including promotions on our homepage, email to our users, just-in-time notifications and more--to ensure that our users have more opportunities to learn about these changes."

Chavez explains that Google is striving to make its privacy policies simpler and more accessible to users, changes lawmakers and regulators have requested. "We're still keeping your private information private--we're not changing the visibility of any information you have stored with Google," Chavez writes on the Google Public Policy Blog. "We're still allowing you to do searches, watch videos on YouTube, get driving directions on Google Maps and perform other tasks without signing into a Google Account. We're still offering you choice and control through privacy tools like Google Dashboard and Ads Preferences Manager that help you understand and manage your data. We still won't sell your personal information to advertisers. We're still offering data liberation if you'd prefer to close your Google Account and take your data elsewhere."

Chavez also responded to the opt-out controversy. "We understand the question at the heart of this concern. We believe that the relevant issue is whether users have choices about how their data is collected and used. Google's privacy policy--like that of other companies--is a document that applies to all consumers using our products and services. However, we have built meaningful privacy controls into our products, and we are committed to continue offering those choices in the future."

The new policy follows Google's recent settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that subjects the company to 20 years of privacy audits. Google also has come under heavy regulatory scrutiny in Europe. Google hopes "that by creating a one-stop shop for privacy policy it will deflect regulatory action," Center for Digital Democracy executive director Jeff Chester told the Associated Press last week.

For more:
- read this Google Public Policy Blog entry

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