Editorial: Google's latest digital 'innovation' could be a real threat to privacy

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 - 10:19 am

Google's plan to integrate all the data it collects as it tracks users across email, video and nearly all its other services will undoubtedly be good for its bottom line.

But it ought to give great pause to consumers – and should be a wake-up call for Washington to get more serious about protecting our privacy online.

It's a sweeping change that Google intends to impose on March 1. More alarming, it won't be simple to opt out. You could close your Google account entirely. But that's the point – Google's empire on the Web is so ubiquitous, that choice is impractical for many of us.

In its announcement on Tuesday, the company promised that the new privacy policy would create a "beautifully simple and intuitive" experience for users. Among the "cool things" Google says could happen if you share information, it could send reminders that you're going to be late to a meeting by using your Gmail calendar, your Android smartphone's location and traffic forecasts. If you search for a product on Google, the next time you log into YouTube, you'd get recommendations for related videos.

The change would also create a treasure trove of information for advertisers to target individuals.

Just as easily, a rather full profile could be stitched together, based on Web activity on health, finances or politics.

That's what worries privacy watchdogs like Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He told The Bee's editorial board that Google users would be put in a "digital straitjacket," forced to share personal information.

If this were a government agency doing this, not a private company, you can bet the outcry would be much louder.

It's possible that the Federal Trade Commission will have something to say on the subject before March 1. It should.

On Friday, Reps. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, the co-chairmen of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, urged the FTC to investigate whether the new policy violates Google's settlement last March with the commission. After complaints helped kill its social network, Google Buzz, the company promised not to misrepresent its privacy rules, was banned from sharing individual data without prior approval and agreed to independent privacy audits every other year for 20 years.

A bipartisan group of eight lawmakers, including Markey, Barton and California Reps. Jackie Speier and Henry Waxman, also fired off a letter to Google's CEO raising concerns about data security and consumer privacy.

In response to the uproar, Google on Thursday put out a "setting the record straight" statement. It asserted that it isn't going to collect more information, and that users "still have choice and control" because they don't have to sign in to use many services and have tools to remain anonymous.

All well and good, but if too many users did that, the business value of its new policy would plummet. Google is in a fierce battle with the likes of Facebook for users and revenue; since Google reported disappointing fourth-quarter earnings on Jan. 19, its stock price has dropped nearly 10 percent.

Europe is taking a much tougher approach to online privacy. On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed strict new rules requiring Internet companies to protect users' information and giving consumers the "right to be forgotten" – to have all their data deleted from websites and databases. Violators would face huge fines – as much as 2 percent of annual revenues.

The European plan is probably too heavy-handed for America. We need to strike the right balance between individual privacy and a vibrant digital economy.

A good start would be for Congress to consider President Barack Obama's proposed consumer privacy bill of rights that would be enforced by the FTC. The agency has floated the idea of a "do not track" option to let users opt out of having their Web history monitored for marketing purposes.

Saturday was International Data Privacy Day. Just maybe – if Congress, the FTC and Internet companies can get on the same page – Americans would have real reason to celebrate next year.

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