Google's new privacy policy: Washington's misguided interrogation

Even though the new policy doesn't change how Google operates, lawmakers are using it as a springboard into an inquiry over user privacy.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

I have to admit that I didn't really get too excited when I heard last week that Google was updating its privacy policy. After all, companies do that kind of stuff all the time - credit card companies send notices in the mail all the time to inform their customers that new policies will soon go into effect while Internet companies produce a pop-up window and force users to click on agree or terminate the company-customer relationship.

Think about it: none of these companies ask their customers if the changes are OK or if they'd like to opt-out of certain parts of it. And frankly, with all of the legal blah blah blah that bog down these policies, no one is really going to read any of it anyway. Right? I mean, let's be honest. Who here is really taking the time to read through all of the terms and policies before signing up for a new service, downloading an app or installing an update?

So along comes Google, consolidating something like 60 different privacy policies - many of which have overlapping terms and conditions - into one master policy, something that lays it all out in terms of how Google properties are connected, the type of data that's collected, how and why that data is shared among the different properties, how users can manage their personal private settings or opt-out of certain features and how some services don't even require a Google account to use.

That's a lot of information - and it's written without all of the legal jargon. It's written so that anyone can understand it. And, yet, in Washington, lawmakers continue to prove that when it comes to technology, they still don't get it.

Over the past few days, there's been a back-and-forth exchange between Google and a bipartisan group of lawmakers over the policy change, sparked by concern that Google is making these changes so that it can sell better-targeted ads. Gasp! Imagine the nerve of Google, wanting to expose their users to advertising for stuff they might actually care about. How dare Google try to offer enhanced and customized services for their users? Shame on Google for doing all of this as a way to bring in more revenue and deliver a better rate of return for its shareholders.

And certainly Washington can't be at all happy with Google for doing what it hasn't been able to do - consolidate a complex set of rules, policies, terms and conditions from a cumbersome and inefficient set of documents into something that's manageable, easy to follow and definitely more efficient. Perhaps lawmakers might want to tap Google for some advice when it comes time to revamp the tax code. Just sayin'...

But I digress. The bigger point I'm trying to make is that the Washington lawmakers are showing their lack of business understanding by launching an email interrogation over something like a change to a privacy policy. The policies themselves didn't really change - and Google has been beyond clear about that. Google isn't suddenly collecting a new set of data or now starting to hand out a user's personal information to spammers. Sharing of information across Google properties has already been happening - and frankly, it's made my user experience that much better.

Who cares if Google has visions of how they can use that information in more ways to create new services or charge more for advertising. If Google suddenly decides to start using the information for some new service, one that makes users squeamish about their privacy, then users can revolt by not using the service. Google will get the hint pretty quickly. Remember Buzz?

Here's the bigger point: If Washington has a problem with the way Google is collecting, using and sharing data, then Washington should launch an investigation of Google's business practices and make a determination about whether or not government intervention is necessary. Instead, in an election year, some lawmakers are raising red flags over a change to the privacy policy and questioning - loud enough for their constituents to hear - why Google doesn't let people opt-out of the changes.

That's just wrong - especially since Google (and any other online service, for that matter) has the ultimate opt-out feature. Those who don't like how Google does business don't have to use Google's products or services. Microsoft continues to offer its Bing search engine as an alternative to Google, though it's worth noting that Google search, like YouTube, doesn't require a Google account. Yahoo has mail, maps and a calendar. And Android certainly isn't the only smartphone OS on the market.

At the end of the day: Washington lawmakers are trying to turn a non-issue into a bigger deal than it should be. Here's an idea: If Washington wants to start questioning an industry that regularly makes changes to its privacy policies, then start with the banks. Based on what's been happening with home foreclosures and Occupy protests, it's probably safe for lawmakers to assume that their constituents are more concerned about how the banks continue to impact our lives and less bothered by a change to the privacy policy of a company that wants to connect a YouTube account with a user's search history so it can offer a more customized experience.

Previous coverage: Google's new privacy policy: The good, bad, scary

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