Pols to Google: Wrong Answers

Lawmakers want more detail from search giant about new privacy policy

Google was quick to respond to a letter sent to it last week from eight House members, dashing off a 13-pager outlining and explaining its updated privacy policy. But perhaps the search giant should have taken a little more time (it had until Feb. 16), because lawmakers weren't buying Google's answers about how the new policy will protect consumer privacy.

In its letter dated Jan. 30, Google explained that the new policy, which consolidated 60 tenets into one, gives consumers a lot of control over how their data is collected and used, except for one—opting out.

"Some have expressed concern about whether consumers can opt out of our updated privacy policy. 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," wrote Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy.

That was the wrong answer for lawmakers looking to find out how Google would allow users to opt out of the policy, which goes into effect March 1. From Google's detailed answers, it appears as though the only way to opt out of the company's privacy policy is to opt out of its products and services altogether.

"Sharing users' personal information across its products may make good business sense for Google, but it undermines privacy safeguards for consumers," Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said in a statement. "Despite Google's recent response, it still appears that consumers will not be able to completely opt out of data collection and information sharing among Google's services."

To lawmakers, the responses Google gave came off as canned. "Google is putting financial opportunity over customers' personal privacy and that's a fact," said Sen. Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chair of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, who along with Markey, has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

"The company has generic stock language for answers. Very few details are given and the same language appears repeatedly. Google keeps referring to its efforts [as] transparent, but there is nothing transparent in its response. Instead of being so focused on correcting what it believed to be inaccurate media reports, Google should have focused on answering the questions that we asked," Barton said in a statement.

In the end, Google's letter may have raised more questions than it answered, leaving lawmakers wanting more discussions with the search giant. "While Google clarifies in the letter a number of ways consumers can control their privacy settings, oftentimes consumers remain automatically logged in to Gmail services. … I still have lingering questions remaining," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "I believe the next step is to have Google come in to brief us on these responses so that we can assure true privacy protections are in place before the new policy goes into effect March 1."

Hearings, anyone?