EPIC Slams Google's Privacy Moves

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Google has announced plans to roll out a more streamlined version of its privacy policies next month. The search giant insists the move to simplify its policies is designed to reduce "legalese" and make its policies more accessible to consumers.

"To be clear, we aren’t changing any of our privacy practices; we want to make our policies more transparent and understandable," Mike Yang, Google's associate general counsel, said in a blog post Friday.

But the move was blasted by privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"The obvious problem with the revised privacy policy is that Google is now treating user data collection as part of an integrated platform. Previously, users could selectively reveal information to Google for the use of a particular service," Rotenberg said in an email to InternetNews.com.

"The FTC needs to investigate these changes. This has significant implications for the privacy of Internet users who have previously provided personal information to Google," he said.

The changes are scheduled to be implemented Oct. 3, but Google has already posted a detailed preview

Under the heading, "Information you provide," the new policy states:

"We may combine the information you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services. For certain services, we may give you the opportunity to opt out of combining such information."

That same wording appears in the current policy that's been in place since January 2009. But even if Google's policy isn't new, the number of Google services released under that privacy policy is growing and now includes Google's social service Buzz and its plan to offer other social media services.

Yang said some of Google's services have supplementary privacy policies that had previously made it difficult for users to understand and keep track of.

"Since there is a lot of repetition, we are deleting 12 of these product-specific policies," Yang said. "These changes are also in line with the way information is used between certain products -- for example, since contacts are shared between services like Gmail, Talk, Calendar and Docs, it makes sense for those services to be governed by one privacy policy as well."

In response to Rotenberg's comments, a spokesperson for Google reiterated the company isn't changing any of its privacy practices.

"Retiring certain product-specific privacy policies and having these products be governed by the main Privacy Policy more accurately reflects what is actually already happening in our products," the spokesperson said in an email to InternetNews.com. "For example, people who use both Gmail and Talk expect to see the same contacts in both products. Moreover, users can still use whichever Google products they want, and they can control information for services associated with their Google Account through the Google Dashboard."

The news comes at a time of growing concern among both consumers and enterprise users over how their information is shared, protected and displayed on social media specifically and across the Web in general.

Google had to quickly revamp Buzz, its social media application for Gmail, after complaints that the service shared too much information on who users were connected to by default.

Similarly, Facebook's gone through numerous revisions to its privacy policies in response to a variety of complaints including that the site's privacy settings were too hard to manage and keep current.

Yang said that a new privacy tools page is designed to provide ready access to the company's privacy tools in one place. Google has also now posted an FAQ page on the policy update.

But for all the streamlining, Yang conceded the firm's privacy policies aren't likely to be a scintillating read. "Our updated privacy policies still might not be your top choice for beach reading (I am, after all, still a lawyer), but hopefully you’ll find the improvements to be a step in the right direction," he said.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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