Google responds to Congress over privacy policy inquiries

The search giant says a key component in its privacy policy change is to make it simpler and more understandable for consumers.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

Google has responded to Congress, defending its decision to make a controversial change to its privacy policy.

In a 13-page letter (document) to several Congress members, Google explained its decision for changing its privacy policy, and answered a host of questions posed by the lawmakers after the search giant announced its plans.

"Last week we heard from members of Congress about Google's plans to update our privacy policies by consolidating them into a single document on March 1," Google director of public policy Pablo Chavez wrote today in a blog post accompanying the letter. "Protecting people's privacy is something we think about all day across the company, and we welcome discussions about our approach. We hope this letter, in which we respond to the members' questions, clears up the confusion about these changes."

Google announced plans to rewrite its privacy policy last week. The revision will give the company explicit rights to "combine personal information" across the many products and services it currently offers.

"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," Google said at the time. "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."

But several lawmakers, including Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), saw things differently. And in their letter to Google, they said that "consumers should have the ability to opt out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service."

In today's letter, Google responded to those charges, saying that its new privacy policy, which will be consolidated into a single document on March 1, gives users all the control they want.

"If a user is signed in, she can still edit or turn off her search history, switch Gmail chat to "off the record," control the way Google tailors ads to her interests using our Ads Preferences Manager, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer."

In addition, Google says that its new privacy policy will not impact its users' existing privacy settings nor will the company be "collecting any new or additional data about users."

"There are two reasons why we're updating our privacy policies: to make them simpler and more understandable, and to improve the user experience across Google," the company wrote in its letter to the lawmakers.

Here are some of the answers Google provided in response to questions posed by the members of Congress:

  • According to Google, it collects three types of data from users: log data, account data, and service data. Log data, defined as a computer's interaction with the service, is anonymous, while account data is all the user information stored for each individual. Service data is information that relates to a particular product, such as Google Maps, but is "not necessarily associated with any users."
  • Google reiterated that its privacy policy's main change will allow it to "combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we can treat you as a single user across all products."
  • The new privacy policy will not change how Google archives or deletes user data, the company says.
  • The updated privacy policy will affect those using mobile devices, like Android-based smartphones, Google has confirmed.
  • To educate users on the new privacy policy, Google says it will continue to conduct "the most extensive user notification effort" in the company's history. The notifications will continue past March 1 when the new privacy policy takes effect.

Updated at 7:20 a.m. PT to include more details.