Consumer Watchdog Takes On Google As Lawmakers Mull Data Privacy Regulation

Wed, Jul 8, 2009 at 10:15 am

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    Consumer Watchdog — which, as the name implies is a consumer watchdog organization — is
    raising alarms over privacy concerns that have been brought to the fore
    as online search company Google engages in wheeling and dealing before
    the House Communications and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

    At issue is legislation that might affect Google’s practice of
    "behavioral advertising," the process by which Google serves ads to
    users based upon personal information gleaned from individual users’
    browsing habits, which many deem invasive. Potentially, lawmakers could
    inhibit Google’s ambitions in this area by making it possible for users
    to opt out of Google’s meticulous tracking. Worse for the online giant
    is the possibility that users will have to opt in in order to
    be tracked in the first place. At the very least, Google might find
    itself subjected to a "Do Not Google" list, similar to the "Do Not
    Call" lists that have been applied to the telemarketing industry.

    In their press release, Consumer Watchdog notes that their concerns have become magnified with the announcement that Google will be introducing their own operating system:

    The question has grown more urgent with Google’s
    announcement Wednesday that it will release a new operating system that
    moves currently computer-based functions to its proprietary Internet
    "cloud," said Consumer Watchdog. Congress is considering forcing Google
    to adopt an opt-in model where users must actively allow Google to
    collect browsing history and user data.

    "The Justice Department should be worried when Google tries to
    obfuscate its data tracking capacity and reach rather than disclose all
    of it," said Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog.
    "Congress should demand that Google stop tracking Americans’ online
    behavior without their prior permission."


    Google’s new operating system could also comb users’ stored
    documents for information on those "interest categories." The depth of
    this potential data collection is not mentioned in the Google spin
    document. …Instead, it boasts repeatedly of Google’s commitment to
    transparency and "user friendliness" in delivering the lucrative

    In an interview with the Huffington Post, Jamie Court, president of
    the Consumer Watchdog, was explicit in his concerns: "No one knows more
    about Americans than Google…The FBI doesn’t know as much about us as
    Google. That has to worry Congress as much as it should worry Americans
    as they learn about it." Regarding the proposed operating system, Court
    says, "People just don’t get it that your documents are at Google, not
    on your computer," making those items subject to the same processes
    that power Google’s "behavioral advertising."

    To emphasize their point, Consumer Watchdog has obtained a
    confidential "spin document," thanks to "an anonymous industry insider
    who has previously provided other Google spin documents." In the first
    place, yes: "Confidential" "spin documents" on transparency and privacy
    are awesome monuments to irony. And the document in question, Consumer
    Watchdog believes, is "associated with a June 18 Congressional hearing
    that questioned online "behavioral advertising." What makes this better
    however, is that Consumer Watchdog has done their own "satirical
    annotation" of this "spin document." And the annotated document is full
    of fun Google facts, like the byzantine click odyssey one must go on to
    opt out of being served Google Ads! And the four hours of videos you
    need to watch to get briefed on privacy!

    But the important part of the satiric annotation are the questions for lawmakers that are helpfully provided:

    1. Why isn’t Google’s behavioral advertising opt-in rather than opt-out?

    2. Why not prominently include a link allowing users to permanently opt-out of Google tracking?

    3. 2008: Google says it has no plans to use behavioral advertising… [that] it doesn’t work. What changed?

    4. Is Google’s behavioral advertising really about delivering more
    interesting ads or is it about expanding its data collection and
    targeting activities?

    And, just for emphasis, they direct people to this video, by the hilarious comedy group The Big Honkin’:



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