In letter to Congress, Google defends privacy changes

Google exec contends users still retain control, and private information remains private

In a letter sent to eight members of Congress, Google yesterday defended its move to consolidate its privacy policies and users' personal information.

The 13-page letter explains Google's decision to alter its privacy policies and answers specific questions from the legislators. In sum, Google contended that its approach to privacy has not changed, that users still have control over how they use the company's various online services, and that private information remains private.

"Some have expressed concern about whether consumer can opt out of our updated privacy policy," wrote Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy, in the letter.

"We understand the question at the heart of this concern. We believe the relevant issue is whether users have choices about how their data is collected and used. Google's privacy policy - like that of other companies - is a document that applies to all consumers using our products and services. However, we have built meaningful privacy controls into our products, and we are committed to continue offering those choices in the future," he added.

Google stirred up something of a privacy firestorm last week when company executives disclosed plans to rewrite privacy policies and to meld user information across its various products and services.

Google has been combining users' information from different services, like Gmail and Calendar, for a while, but company is expanding that effort to encompass user information across all products and services.

Privacy advocates and some users were particularly concerned because Google didn't seem to offer users an opt-out option. Instead, the company said if users didn't like their data being combined across services, they could simply stop using them.

Google also took on that complaint in the letter to Congress.

"The main change in the updated privacy policy is for users signed into Google accounts," wrote Chavez. "Individuals don't need to sign in to use many of our services including search, Maps and YouTube. 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."

Chavez also wrote that private user information will remain private -- it will not be given to third parties, he added.

And Chavez also noted that Google will not be collecting more information on users than it was before.

He went on to say Google's moves aim to simplify what had become a "wide range" of privacy policies as well as "improve the user experience."

For instance, he said sharing information across services would allow a user to send friends directions in Google+ Circles without leaving Google Maps. And if a user is searching for a recipe, he or she would get cooking video recommendations when visiting YouTube.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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