Google was on the hot seat as online privacy concerns swirled in Washington, D.C., where the Data Privacy Day event was held last Thursday. A group of lawmakers sent Google CEO Larry Page a letter requesting responses to several detailed questions about changes the company made to its privacy policies on January 24.
Google last week announced that starting March 1, more than 60 privacy policies associated with its various platforms and services will be boiled down to one simpler policy. Through the consolidation, cross-platform data tracking that already exists for Google is made more transparent.
"In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," wrote Alma Whitten, director of privacy, product and engineering at Google in the initial post introducing the policy changes.
The changes are intended to make "things simpler and we’re trying to be upfront about it. Period," wrote Betsy Masiello, Google's policy manager, in a Google Public Policy Blog post.
Legislators, privacy advocates, and the Federal Trade Commission have suggested that companies like Google simplify their privacy policies for years. In consolidating policies associated with various Google products, it stands to reason the company believed it was satisfying such requests.
Some privacy watchdogs and legislators didn't see it that way. The announcement spurred outcries including a letter from eight House Members, including Joe Barton, Edward Markey, Jackie Speier, and Cliff Stearns, each of whom have sponsored privacy bills.
The missive asked why Google made the changes, and requested responses to questions about what types of data the company will track and across which platforms, as well as how the data is protected and how it is used.
"While Google suggests that the purpose of this shift in policy is to make the consumer experience simpler, we want to make sure it does not make protecting consumer privacy more complicated," stated the letter. "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 the ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward."
Responses are due by February 16.
Google's answer on the call for more opt-out control: don't log in.
"If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to 'off the record,' control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer," noted Masiello in her post. She also stressed that Google isn't collecting any more data than it already did.
Google has already merged data across platforms in some cases; for instance, the company can already send someone a meeting reminder based on their location and Google Calendar data. Now, interactions with other products including YouTube will be included in the cross-platform tracking.