Google Privacy Policy Under Scrutiny From Regulators

ImageA recent change to its online privacy policy has sparked a new round of investigations into the online tech behemoth, Google. Seeking to streamline the user data spread across its vast network of online services, Google has raised the eyebrows of data watchdog groups and European Union agencies concerned about user privacy. But has the company done anything illegal?

Google’s power and influence on the internet is breathtaking. Its service decisions will necessarily affect every internet user and these policies deserve public scrutiny, but the question of whether they’ve committed an illegal action is still uncertain.

The company, whose unofficial corporate motto is famously “Don’t be evil,” insists that it’s done nothing wrong and that its new policy, which basically combines 60 separate privacy policies into one agreement, “respects European law.”

In effect since March of 2012, Google’s current privacy policy has removed the cross-platform barriers that existed between its many products including the popular search engine, its video site YouTube, its social network site Google+ and its Android smart-phone system. Google’s prowess as a leading clearinghouse for targeted online advertisements through its Adsense and Adwordsprograms has for years earned the company billions of dollars each quarter. The potential of this new ocean — the word “pool” feels inadequate — of internet user activity info would give Google advertisers an even richer set of data, from which to purchase and better target ads.

After a nine month investigation, EU regulators have concluded that Google has failed to place limits on the “scope of collection and the potential uses of the personal data.” The agencies outlined a total of 12 recommendations that they feel if undertaken, would assuage “deep concerns about data protection and the respect of the European law.” Central in theserecommendations are efforts to increase data use transparency and to reinforce users’ consent through explicit choice on data sharing; including a centralized “opt-out tool” for Google users to regulate or deny their information.

These security related complaints still exclude other legitimate concerns involving “over-personalization” in our online experiences or The Filter Bubble, coined by Eli Pariser in his worthwhile book.

As of this writing Google has taken little action to revise their privacy policy, prompting data protection agencies to plan future action, including the threat of litigation, if the company continues to fail to comply. These agencies have stopped short of directly accusing Google of acting illegally. Meanwhile, supporters maintain that Google’s platforms are now more convenient and simpler, and that users have control over their sharing preferences through their account settings and dashboard.

Of course, at the end of the day, it is incumbent upon the user to take a look at their personaldashboard (maybe delete that embarrassing search history), at Google’s terms of service andprivacy policies to regulate just how much of our personal usage data is literally being sold to the highest bidder.

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