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Monday, March 05, 2012

Google Insists New Policy is Legal

First appeared in Information Week
Google has consolidated its privacy policies, as it said it would, despite the concerns of regulators in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Alma Whitten, Google director of privacy, product and engineering, said in a blog post that the consolidation effort makes it easier to understand the company's privacy policy, enables a better experience for signed-in Google users, and leaves existing privacy controls intact.

Although EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told the BBC that Google's privacy policy consolidation violates data protection laws, Google maintains that its changes are legally compliant.

"We are confident that our new simple, clear and transparent privacy policy respects all European data protection laws and principles," a company spokesperson said in an email. "It provides all the information required in Articles 10 & 11 of the directive, plus much additional information, and it follows the guidelines published by the Article 29 Working Party in 2004."

NYU Stern School of Business professor Arun Sundararajan says Google is moving in the right direction, but hasn't yet done enough to protect consumers.

"On the one hand, I do give Google credit for providing a greater level of transparency about what information they have about their consumers," Sundararajan said in a phone interview. "What Google isn't doing enough of is telling us what they're going to do with this information. That's a little troubling to me. The policy doesn't say enough about what limits Google will place on this information for advertising purposes. And beyond one small assurance they've given us [about not sharing personal information], we don't know how much they're going to share with marketing partners."

Sundararajan says he doesn't see Google's privacy policy consolidation as altering the privacy risks consumers face. "I see it as a move where Google is reducing its own risk. But I'd like to see them be more forthright in spelling out what they will and won't do with customer data."

Sundararajan suggests that Google's distinction between "personally identifiable information" and "non-personally identifiable information" is outdated, given the extent to which non-personally identifiable data can be correlated to identify someone.

"Re-identifying people based on their [anonymized] activity data is not hard and it's getting increasingly easier," he said.

Sundararajan proposes that companies and regulators adopt an "intent-based" approach to privacy as an alternative to burdensome rules that attempt to define permissible privacy practices.

As he sees it, companies should consider the intention of the customer who provided the data as a guideline for how the customer's data can be used. If a customer signs up for an online service with an email address, for example, the company should be able to use that address to contact the customer about the service but not to identify the customer for an activity profile or some other purpose.

"If companies start to align the way they use their data with the intent the customer had when providing the information, this will go a long way toward mitigating the privacy risk," he said. "There are good-intentioned firms out there that just don't have good guidelines about how to responsibly manage consumer data."