Google's Sundar Pichai says privacy can't be a 'luxury good'

In a New York Times op-ed, the search giant's CEO highlights the company's efforts to improve user data privacy.

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Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
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Google CEO Sundar Pichai Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee

Google CEO Sundar Pichai lays out some of his Google's user privacy efforts in a New York Times op-ed piece.

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In December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai conceded that his company could "do better" on helping users understand how to protect their privacy in a tech world hungry for user data.

"We want to simplify it," Pichai told members of Congress during a back-and-forth on a number of privacy concerns. In an opinion piece Tuesday in The New York Times, Pichai highlighted some of those efforts, calling privacy "one of the most important topics of our time."

Pichai acknowledged that having access to our data makes Google's services run better, but that users -- all users -- should still expect their privacy to be protected without having to pay extra for the privilege.

"Privacy cannot be a luxury good offered only to people who can afford to buy premium products and services," he wrote. "Privacy must be equally available to everyone in the world."

Earlier in the day, Pichai was on stage at Google's I/O developer conference, where the company unveiled a wide range of new products and updated services, including the Pixel 3A phone, Android Q, its Duplex and Assistant software, and its AR and Lens efforts.

Watch this: All of the news out of Googles I/O keynote

Pichai's op-ed piece comes amid turmoil in the tech community about how consumers' data is used, sold and protected. Google has faced questions about the collection of user location data, the software flaws that exposed information from millions of accounts of Google+ users and the potential for privacy regulations.

To try to answer some of those questions, Pichai explained how Google uses anonymized data to make its products more helpful. He also said that the targeted ads served to users are based on activities such as past search results and not personal data found in apps such as Gmail or Docs.

While reviewing some of the privacy protection tools Google has offered over the years, Pichai touted new features the company introduced last week, including auto-delete controls and two-factor authentication for Android-based phones .

He also touted the work Google is doing with artificial intelligence to protect users' privacy -- specifically with a feature called federated learning that studies and learns from the data on your device but only sends the lesson learned to developers, not the raw data.

The company has drawn blowback for its AI operations, including a March backlash over its AI ethics board. Google disbanded the board after only a week.

"In the future, AI will provide even more ways to make products more helpful with less data," he wrote.

In his conclusion, Pichai brought up a touchy subject in the tech community: legislation . Members of Congress have shown interest in moving toward a federal law governing consumer privacy, and Pichai said Google supports the US adopting privacy legislation similar to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation.

"Legislation will help us work toward ensuring that privacy protections are available to more people around the world."

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