Google Privacy Policy Criticized by State Attorneys General

Google Inc. (GOOG)’s new privacy policy was criticized by the National Association of Attorneys General as failing to give consumers choices about pooling their data.

In a letter to Google Inc. Chief Executive Officer Larry Page, the group said the policy, scheduled to go into effect March 1, invades consumer privacy by automatically sharing personal information that users input for one Google service across all of the company’s products.

“The new policy forces consumers to allow information across all of Google’s products to be shared without giving them the proper ability to opt out,” the association said in the letter, which 36 attorneys general signed. The officials, who are both Republicans and Democrats, asked to meet with Page to address their privacy concerns.

Google, the world’s most-popular search engine, announced plans on Jan. 24 to unify privacy policies for products including YouTube videos and Android software for mobile phones, saying it will simplify conditions users agree to.

Chris Gaither, a spokesman for Google, said in an e-mail that the new policy will make privacy practices easier to understand and Google’s services easier to use.

Notification Effort

“We’ve undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google’s history,” he said. “We’re continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services.”

The change means Google will be able to pull together everything it knows about users from its disparate products. A consumer’s YouTube viewing history can be used to tailor results in Google Search while an individual’s search history will enable more relevant ads across Google products, Gaither said.

The letter from the Attorneys General follows a complaint filed with the FTC earlier today by Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who said the plan to streamline privacy settings for about 60 different services and products is deceptive and primarily aimed at targeting users with advertising keyed to their interests, not to making Google easier to use.

“Google fails to tell users in its principal privacy- change communications how such data collection, profiling, and targeting practices impact -- and potentially harm -- their privacy,” Chester wrote in the complaint. “Google presents the information in a deceptive way that suggests consumers will benefit from the new policy.”

Privacy Issues

Chester’s group, which has also urged the FTC to address privacy issues at Facebook Inc. and other online marketers, asked the FTC to sue Google to stop the policy change and to fine the company. The FTC can levy fines of $16,000 per day, per violation, for breaches of consent decrees.

Claudia Bourne Farrell, a spokeswoman for the FTC, said the agency had received the complaint and declined to comment further.

Another privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, sued the FTC in federal court Feb. 8 seeking to force the agency to act against Google’s new privacy policy. A judge is weighing a U.S. motion to dismiss the case.

The agency’s settlement with Google last year, which barred sharing user data outside the company without clear permission, stemmed from a complaint EPIC filed in 2010.

Under the consent decree announced March 30, Mountain View, California-based Google agreed it used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policies when it introduced its Buzz social-networking service in 2010.

The 20-year settlement bars Google from misrepresenting how it handles information and obliges the company to follow policies that protect consumer data in new products.

Google’s new privacy policy is also under review by data- protection agencies in Europe, which have asked the company to delay introducing the new policy pending that review. Google has said it doesn’t intend to suspend the new policy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Forden in Washington at sforden@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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