Stealing your privacy -- it's Google once again

By

Published March 01, 2012

| FoxNews.com

After weeks of controversy, today Google will formally implement a new privacy policy that will enable the Internet giant to build more complete profiles of you when you interact with Google anywhere on the web. 

The company's abysmal track record on privacy demonstrates why consumers, elected officials and privacy experts are appalled by the change and by their continued indifference to privacy protections. 

In fact, when it comes to consumer privacy and Google, it's time to get angry. Google has made apologies and promises to the public, settled a suit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by signing a 20-year consent decree, and attempted to placate Congress with vague descriptions of its privacy and search practices.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google deliberately circumvented privacy protections in Apple's Safari web browser when used on the iPhone and any computer running Safari. 

Even when consumers followed Google and Apple's instructions to protect their privacy, the Internet search giant secretly engineered special code to track a user's web browsing. 

And last week, a group of 36 state attorneys general -- from both political parties -- wrote to Google expressing serious concerns about their upcoming privacy policy changes: "[o]n a fundamental level, the policy appears to invade consumer privacy by automatically sharing personal information consumers input into one Google product with all Google products." 

Adding, "It rings hollow to call their ability to exit the Google products' ecosystem a "choice" in an Internet economy where the clear majority of all Internet users use - and frequently rely on - at least one Google product on a regular basis."

This latest episode of privacy violations exemplifies Google's dismissive approach to consumer privacy and its willingness to defy legal agreements with government, as well as a firestorm of controversy over its announced privacy policy changes. 

Just last year, Google settled a suit with the FTC over deceptive privacy practices associated with the launch of its now defunct social networking service Buzz. At the time, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, "This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations."

Clearly, last year's settlement has not been tough enough. What could be more deceptive and intrusive than telling consumers how to avoid being tracked by using certain browser settings and then deliberately undermining those settings?

Google's pattern of deceptive behavior and privacy violations raises a slew of issues with broader marketplace, consumer and regulatory implications. 

Google has a dominant market presence: its search page is the most visited website in the world and its backend data analysis tools are being used by leading websites. Inevitably, its behavior brings government and public scrutiny that impacts the entire Internet environment.

In addition to the 36 attorneys general, a growing chorus of government officials and members of Congress are rightly voicing their concern about Google. 

Representative Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) has already said that she will ask Google representatives to return to Capitol Hill to explain the company's latest privacy violations.

Unfortunately, it's easy to imagine Google yet again providing elected officials with another round of obfuscation that attempts to dismiss the problem. 

Time and again, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and other company officials have brushed off critical questions with some version of this answer: "It's too technical. You wouldn't understand."

This lame appeal to technical functionality is extremely dangerous for the tech industry at large. It challenges government to developing new industry-wide rules that could include cumbersome oversight. Such a regulatory scheme could broadly stifle innovation, if applied overzealously, and it conveniently deflects attention away from Google.

If given honest and accurate information about how much of their private information is being harvested by Google and how that information is being used, American consumers can decide which technologies are best suited for them. 

Unfortunately, Google has proven time and again that if left alone, the company cannot be trusted to be open and transparent with their customers.

What, then, can consumers and government do that will improve online privacy protections without over-regulating the Internet? 

First and foremost, government needs to use current law and regulatory enforcement that truly works. Penalties against Google have not been sufficient to change its behavior, so tougher penalties should be enforced. These penalties -- including tight oversight -- should be focused on the single corporate perpetrator -- Google -- not the tech industry or the Internet at large. Maybe Google should be banned from collecting any online consumer information until the company can abide by its own stated privacy policies.

Consumers must also remain vigilant. They need to raise their concerns with their elected officials and, if possible, even take their business elsewhere. 

Unfortunately, Google dominates so much Internet traffic that it remains virtually impossible to fully escape its reach. -- That's why we need complete answers by Google to explain the extent of their data collection methods across the web and how the information is used to target consumers for ads.

To get these answers, lawmakers should demand that Google executives appear before Congress and testify under oath. Then U.S. consumers can make informed decisions about how much of their private information is being collected by Google and how it is being used. 

American consumers need the facts so they can be responsible for protecting themselves online.

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a non-profit educational and research institute.

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