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Google’s New Privacy Policy: Invasive, Innovative or Both?

March 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Google's sweeping new privacy policy took effect Thursday, stirring concern among many state attorneys general who have called it an invasion of privacy. The company said the move would allow it to personalize information for customers and streamline privacy measures. Jeffrey Brown and guests examine the new policy's effects.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to a big change for one of the tech industry’s giants in the debate over online privacy.

In recent weeks, Google has been alerting its more than one billion users around the world that, beginning today, the company is consolidating some 60 privacy policies of its different services into one and more closely coordinating those services into one large database.

Here’s part of how the company explains it.

WOMAN: So, instead of over 60 policies for different Google products and features, we’re introducing just one, with fewer words, simpler explanations and less legal goop to wade through. That means that when you use Google, from Gmail and search, to YouTube and calendar, you can count on one simplified policy that explains our privacy commitment to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Google says the move will also allow it to better serve customers by pulling together personalized information across a variety of different sites.

But not everyone agrees; 32 state attorneys general recently wrote a letter to Google CEO Larry Page, calling the new policy an invasion of privacy. And some regulatory agencies in the European Union warned that the new policy might be a violation of the E.U.’s data protection rules.

And we debate the merits of the policy and the broader issue now with Markham Erickson. He’s the executive director of the Open Internet Coalition, representing more than 50 of the largest Internet companies in the country, including Google. But he doesn’t speak or represent Google in this specific policy. And Lori Andrews is professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of the new book “I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy.”

For the record, we invited Google to join us, but the company declined.

Lori Andrews, as the title of your book suggests, you’re one of those who has raised concerns about privacy online. What concerns do you have about what Google is now doing?

LORI ANDREWS, Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law: Well, Google at heart is an advertising platform. It makes 96 percent of its money, or $36 billion a year, by targeting ads.

So this new policy allows them to target ads across platforms. So, if I send an email over Gmail to a divorce lawyer and then I do a Google search for depression, if I then am watching a YouTube video with my — a young son, ads will pop up related to divorce and mental health, which might trouble him. This private information of mine will become visible.

And Google has erred in the past. In 2010, when young people went on Google chat rooms to say I’m thinking of committing suicide with X-chemical, a Google ad would pop up immediately, saying dial 1-800-blah-blah-blah, two for one, get that chemical. So the algorithms invade privacy and may push us toward harmful behaviors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Markham Erickson, of course, Google would say that this is a transparent system and a service to its customers. What’s the best argument for what they’re trying to do?

MARKHAM ERICKSON, Open Internet Coalition: Well, frankly, the criticisms you just heard I think are way overblown and they’re more akin to fear-mongering about, not Google, but an attack on the commercial Internet itself.

And for over 20 years, America has led the way in creating new products and innovative services, many of which, if not most of which, are free for consumers, things like mapping services and email services, video services. And those services are provided for free to consumers because the products — the companies that provide those services are able to collect information about your browsing habits.

They don’t sell that personally — that personal information, any personal information to third parties. It’s internal. But, because of that, they’re able to sell advertisements to their users that target the interests that their users have when they browse the Internet.

So, therefore — so that kind of tradeoff has been part of the commercial Internet since the very beginning.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying, so, consumers should know that that’s the economic model, and therefore in exchange for the free service, they are giving away some of their personal data for use by advertisers?

MARKHAM ERICKSON: Well, they’re not giving their personal data to advertisers.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m sorry, Lori. First, let Markham Erickson answer that.

MARKHAM ERICKSON: Yeah, they’re not giving personal data to advertisers, not at all.

They collect data that is non-personally identifiable, and they’re able to allow advertisers to target ads that are of interest to users without disclosing any personal information. And, frankly, users would rather see ads that more represent what they’re interested in than seeing ads that aren’t relevant to them. So that kind of tradeoff has made the Internet work for over 20 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

Lori Andrews, you wanted to jump in.

LORI ANDREWS: Sure.

It’s not fear-mongering when people are losing their jobs or losing benefits as a result of this. Google’s collecting this information, including things that people say they don’t want. All the surveys of consumers suggest they’d rather not be tracked over the Internet.

And things happen, such as, if you do a Google search about a health condition — and you might be doing it for your mother or someone else — then if you go to a health insurance site or a life insurance site, that’s thought to represent you. They don’t need my name to have my data and use it against me.

Plus, Google announced this policy saying one benefit is that we’re going to track you, and so if your Google calendar says you’re supposed to be at an appointment, and you’re — we can tell from your GPS that you’re far away, we will send you a Google Map to get you there faster.

Well, the problem is Google does nothing to prevent third parties from using that information. In fact, 93 percent of the time, when the government asks for information, your private searches, GPS data, it turns it over.

Employers now are asking for your private passwords. So the employer might use that same information that Google is touting as a benefit to say oh, your GPS location shows that you were at a competitor or at your lover’s house.

We’re already seeing people losing jobs. One-third of employers say that they won’t hire someone if on their social network page there’s a picture of them with wine in their hands; 75 percent of employers now have a policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask. . .

LORI ANDREWS: If Google really does care about the consumer, they’d be working to prevent third parties from requiring access.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, respond to that, Mr. Erickson. And why not have a system — or I guess one question asked is where consumers would have to opt in, rather than being allowed to opt out in some cases.

MARKHAM ERICKSON: Consumers actually do have to opt in order for Google to track a user’s activities across the various Google products and services.

Again, these criticisms aren’t particular to Google. They’re criticisms of the commercial Internet itself, of social networks and of search engines and of free Internet products and services. And those free products and services aren’t going to be free anymore if we don’t allow the companies to offer those kinds of services, and, again, with full knowledge from the consumers of the tradeoff that they’re making.

The reason Google has spent five weeks educating consumers about what’s happening is because they’re not trying to do anything in secret. In fact, Google and most of the large Internet companies that I work with support baseline federal privacy legislation to deal with some of the problems that have been raised.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, are you — just very briefly, Mr. Erickson, are you worried about stronger regulation? You hear it from the A.G.s. You hear it from the European Union.

MARKHAM ERICKSON: Well, I think the criticisms you have heard here tonight are not in the mainstream of what serious policy-makers are considering.

We support what the White House called for last week, which was baseline privacy legislation. And we think that a light-touch legislative structure, statutory structure, with enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission to go after bad actors that are abusing the system, that are selling information without users’ permission, those actors should be gone after. But that’s not what’s happening here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, briefly, Lori Andrews, you would like to see it stronger?

JEFFREY BROWN: Very briefly, please.

LORI ANDREWS: Sure.

And, so, he said serious policy-makers, but we have a variety of people in Congress, Congressman Markey, Senator Al Franken, very concerned about this. It doesn’t reflect what the public wants. You’re asking people to give up a very important right. We wouldn’t say — allow companies to say, oh, the only way you will get your service is if you give up your right to vote or your right to have children.

Privacy is a fundamental right. The surveys of what consumers want is much different. And we’re seeing pushback, a lot of class actions that consumers have won. NebuAd, a company in California, actually put hardware on Internet service providers and collected for 400,000 people in California every email, every Skype call, every Google search.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

LORI ANDREWS: That information is being traded on. And you don’t have a choice.

Google’s saying, if you want to use our services, this is the way it is; take your business elsewhere if you don’t agree with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I’m — I’m afraid we do have to leave it there.

Lori Andrews and Markham Erickson, we will return to the subject. Thanks very much.