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Google’s Privacy Rules Grow, But Do Protections?

By , SMARTMONEY BLOG - WSJ.COM

Thu, Mar 1, 2012 at 3:32 pm

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Google’s privacy policy grew from 650 words a dozen years ago to more than 2,000 in the new version which goes into effect on Thursday. But experts say the all the extra verbiage is not about protecting user data so much as setting clearer guidelines for exploiting it.

Despite the outcry each update to its policy generates, Google insists the new rules will not change how it treats user data. Instead, the new policy explains the extent to the Internet giant can mine every click and keystroke for valuable information. In a letter to eight members of Congress last month, Pablo Chavez, director of public policy at Google, said the Internet giant consolidated 60 specific policies into one single, more readable policy.

But the more sites like Google and Facebook say about privacy, consumer experts warn, the more privacy is likely being invaded. “Google claims that it’s attempting to streamline its policies — in fact, it’s about building even more detailed digital dossiers about the people who use Google services so that Google will get more ad revenue.,” says John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project, a California-based non-profit organization.” (A spokesman for Google says the company won’t collect new or additional data as a result of the latest changes.)

Apathy among the public isn’t helping efforts to stave off the gradual erosion of Internet privacy, experts say. Only one-in-eight people bothered to read Google’s latest privacy policies, according to a new survey released by YouGov market research group. And even though Google flagged the new policy on its sites, language experts say it’s too wordy to hold most people’s attention. “It’s probably the product of lawyerly thoroughness and comprehensiveness, but it’s too long a text to hold the reader’s interest,” says language expert Alan M. Perlman. If Google wanted the public’s attention, he says the company should explain in plain English what exactly is different in each of its many privacy policy updates.

To be sure, consumers get a lot of free services in return for their online activities being recorded and collected, experts say. “Nothing is free,” says says Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at Sophos, an online security consultancy. “How are you paying for the service should always be a question consumers should ask because you’re paying for it somehow.” Google and Facebook profit by ensuring that advertising is tailor-made for its users. “The additional information gathered by Google will be in stark contrast to the inaccurate information collected by marketing companies about who is watching what on TV,” Wisniewski says.

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