Consumer Group Objects to Google’s Secret Briefing

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    The non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog on Wednesday objected to the closed-door meeting scheduled Thursday at which Google executives will brief a congressional subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., about Google’s plans to expand how it indexes and profiles Internet users.

    “Your investigation into Google’s practices that affect millions of Americans should be public,” John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project, wrote in this letter to Mack. “There is a substantial irony in a secret briefing from a company that claims its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it more accessible.”

    Mack intends to follow through with the secret briefing, says her senior adviser Ken Johnson.

    “These types of informational briefings are routinely held for members and staff only,” Johnson says. “It gives us an opportunity to collect information, ask tough questions and determine whether a hearing or investigation is warranted.”

    Google announced last week that it will consolidate dozens of user agreements for its most popular services into one privacy agreement encompassing them all. Starting March 1, the company will have the ability, policywise, to correlate what a user does across most of its online services, whether a user accesses them on PC Web browser or via any Internet-connected mobile device using the Google Android operating system.

    Johnson noted that Mack plans to “aggressively question Google” about its “lack of an opt-out provision” for consumers under its new users’ policy.

    Google asserts that users will maintain “choice and control,” that Google is not collecting any more data than it already does and that its intent is to improve user experience.

    Critics in Europe and the U.S. worry that consumers won’t have meaningful control over personal information collected and archived by Google as part of its popular Internet-based

    services, including search, Gmail, Google Apps, YouTube and Picasa.

    “Google collected the information under one set of rules and is now changing the game without giving people an opportunity to opt out,” says Simpson. “Allowing Google to give secret briefings does not serve the committee nor the public interest. One can only wonder what Google has to hide.”

    In Europe, Norwegian public sector agencies will be banned from using Google Apps due to concerns that the service could put citizens’ personal data at risk, according to the Financial Times. Europeans are particularly concerned about provisions in the Patriot Act, which requires U.S. companies to disclose data to U.S. authorities, when asked.

    Last year the town of Odense in Denmark banned use of Google Apps in its schools due to concerns about leaving personal data at risk. The German government is working on stricter data protection rules and France is pursuing a venture to promote French cloud services over U.S. rivals, the Financial Times reports.

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