Google Tells Congress It's Changing Privacy Policies, Not Practices

Google Jan. 31 responded to senators' concerns that the company was infringing on user privacy with its forthcoming privacy policy changes.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Jan. 31 assured Congress that it is changing its privacy policies to make them easier to manage and improve the company's existing Web services for its users.

"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 percent fewer words," Pablo Chavez, director of public policy for Google, wrote in a letter to Congress.

Google Jan. 24 announced that it will aggregate 60 of its Web services under one single privacy policy. Under this new policy, a user with a Google account who signs into Google's search, YouTube, Gmail and other applications is treated as the same individual across all of those services, and data may be shared between those services.

These changes go into effect March 1. Pundits seized on this change to argue that Google is trampling user privacy rights to help it better compete with Facebook for advertising dollars.

Eight U.S. senators expressed concerns about the changes, seeking more information from Google about the changes in a letter, signed Jan. 26 by Reps. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif.; Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.; Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Joe Barton, R-Texas; Diana DeGette, D-Colo.; Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C.; and Jackie Speier, D-Calif.

"We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service and that ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward," they wrote in the letter, addressed Google CEO Larry Page.

The senators had asked Google to respond by mid-February; Google responded in five days.

"Our approach to privacy has not changed," wrote Chavez. "We'll continue to focus on providing transparency, control and security to our users. 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, emails to our users, just-in-time notifications, and more-to ensure that our users have many opportunities to learn about these changes."

Chavez also stressed that users needn't sign in with a Google account to access Google Search, Maps, and YouTube, and that users' private information remains private.

Also, a user might have a Google account and choose to use Gmail, but not use Google+. Users may also keep their data separated by employing different accounts, such as keeping one for YouTube and one for Gmail.

Google began life in 1998 solely as a search engine, but gradually added Gmail, Google Maps, Google Apps, Blogger, Chrome, Android, YouTube, and Google+. Combined these services have several hundreds of millions of users.

Each service came with its own privacy policy, creating a privacy spaghetti the company began to chop down in September 2010. Last week's announcement was the latest move along this path.

Chavez also noted that Google's ability to share information for one account across services also allows signed-in users to use Google+'s Circles sharing feature to send directions to people without leaving Google Maps. Under current privacy policies, this information-sharing would not be possible.

As of March 1, signed-in users will be treated as "single entities" across most Google services.