Politicians aim some pointed privacy questions at Google

Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes YouTube's headquarters, co-authored a letter asking Google a series of sternly worded questions.

One of Google's hometown members of Congress is complaining that the search company isn't doing enough to protect its users' privacy.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a longtime Democrat whose district includes YouTube's San Bruno, Calif., headquarters, co-authored a letter (PDF) today asking the company to respond to a series of sternly worded questions about its plans to simplify privacy policies into one more-or-less standard one. Currently Google has more than 70 individual privacy policies.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes YouTube's San Bruno, Calif., headquarters, co-authored a letter asking Google a series of sternly worded questions.
Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat whose district includes YouTube's San Bruno, Calif., headquarters, co-authored a letter asking Google a series of sternly worded questions. U.S. House of Representatives

"We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service," the letter says. It was signed by seven other members of Congress including Cliff Stearns (R), Henry Waxman (D)--plus veteran Google antagonists Joe Barton (R) and Ed Markey (D)--and requests a response by February 16.

On Tuesday, Google announced that it would rewrite its privacy policy to grant it explicit rights to "combine personal information" across multiple products and services. Currently it has the implicit right to do so.

Google responded today in a blog post saying the company wanted to clear up "some of the misconceptions" surrounding the simplified privacy policy.

"We're not collecting more data about you. Our new policy simply makes it clear that we use data to refine and improve your experience on Google--whichever products or services you use," the post says. "This is something we have already been doing for a long time. We're making things simpler and we're trying to be upfront about it. Period."

It's rare for a member of Congress to take aim publicly at one of the largest employers in his or her district. Usually they go to Capitol Hill to advance the interests of their constituents--during Microsoft's antitrust woes a decade ago, for instance, members of the Washington state delegation were some of the lone voices calling for restraint on the part of the Justice Department and their colleagues.

But when it comes to privacy, Speier has long been a regulatory enthusiast. In 1997, for instance, she called for more e-commerce regulations. And she introduced a bill last year requiring the Federal Trade Commission to regulate targeted Internet ads, which topped the so-called iAWFUL list compiled by a tech trade association.

Berin Szoka, head of the free-market TechFreedom think tank in Washington, D.C., suggested that the language in today's letter saying that "consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection"--even if a Web site is built on precisely that--is odd and probably unworkable.

"I'm a bit disturbed by the letter's implication that users are entitled to get the benefits of a free Internet service without 'paying' for that service by sharing the information that allows the service to earn advertising revenues or continue to innovate," Szoka said.

Updated at 3:39 p.m. with comment from Google.

Disclosure: McCullagh is married to a Google employee who is on a leave of absence

 

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