Lawmakers question Google CEO over privacy changes


Google co-founder Larry Page (Paul Sakuma/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, were among the lawmakers who asked Page to explain the search engine giant’s new policy.

“Google’s announcement raises questions about whether consumers can opt-out of the new data sharing system either globally or on a product-by-product basis,”the lawmakers wrote. “We believe that consumers should have the ability to opt-out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company’s terms of service and that the ability to exercise that choice should be simple and straightforward.”

Google said in a statement that its looks forward to answering questions and “clarifying misconceptions about our privacy policy changes.”

The company announced this week that it will follow the activities of its users as they move across the firm’s Web sites, including its highly popular YouTube, Gmail and main search engine sites. The company emphasized in interviews that the change, set to begin March 1, would apply only to users who are signed on to their Google accounts. The company said users cannot opt out of that tracking but that they can use many services, such as search and YouTube, without logging into their accounts. Users can also cancel their accounts.

“Users still have control over what data they choose to share when using our services,” a Google statement said. “People don’t need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube. When someone does log in to use our services, we give them ways to control how the information in their account is used.”

The firm pointed to a site where users can see the data being collected by Google. Users can erase search history or make their Gchats “off the record,” for example.

Google has 350 million Gmail users and 90 million users of its social network Google+. Earlier Thursday, it announced it would open its social network to teenagers.

The eight lawmakers who signed onto the letter asked Page to describe all information it collects from users now and how that would change after March 1. They asked Page to detail the security measures that were taken with user data after hackers hit Gmail accounts, including those of some White House staff members, last June. And they were also concerned about privacy protections for teenagers and how Android phone users are affected by the changes.

The lawmakers asked Page to respond to their questions by Feb. 16.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), co-chair of the Congressional privacy caucus, also signed onto the letter. He said separately in a statement that he will ask the Federal Trade Commission whether the company violated promises made in a settlement with the agency last year. The firm was charged with violating consumer protection laws by spilling the contacts lists of Gmail users to people on its now-defunct social network, Google Buzz.

“Googling is like breathing for millions of kids and teens – they can’t live without it,” Markey said. “All consumers should have the right to say no to sharing of their personal information, particularly when young people are involved.”

Related:

Google chairman Schmidt appears before Congress

FAQ: Facebook’s privacy settlement with FTC

Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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