Take Control of Online Privacy

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As the March 1 effective date for Google’s new privacy policy nears, increasing numbers of consumers are buzzing about how it will affect personal privacy online.

The news has been hard to miss. Anyone using the world’s most popular search engine has been exposed. Anyone with any kind of Google account — Gmail, Google Docs, Blogger, Google+, Android — sees a special box in a top corner alerting users of the change, even noting, “This stuff matters.”

You can’t say the 37-million-user-strong Internet juggernaut isn’t trying to be forthcoming about the changes.

With a couple exceptions such as Google Wallet that are subject to federal laws requiring specific privacy policies, Google is consolidating policies from most of its products into one policy that will apply to all.

That seems reasonable — even consumer-friendly — but consumer and watchdog groups disagree, saying Google has failed to address how these changes could affect consumers, not provided a way to opt out of the changes and violated a settlement Google made with the Federal Trade Commission last year.

That settlement resulted from complaints that Google combined and disclosed user data without user consent, especially surrounding Google’s quiet but automatic inclusion of Google Buzz — the company’s first attempt at a social network — in Gmail. Ultimately, Google Buzz failed in the controversy, and Google+ subsequently was born.

In the agreement with the FTC, Google promised not to share users’ information with third parties without first obtaining users’ explicit permission. Now, in less than two weeks, Google is both changing privacy policy —or policies — and doing so without an apparent option for consumers to opt out.

That’s the grounds for a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Federal Court last week, not against Google for effecting the changes, but against the Federal Trade Commission for not enforcing the 2011 settlement.

Once again, online privacy issues head to court, where law lags far behind technological changes and where a conclusion could take months, even years, to reach. The term on which legality often rests is a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” which varies over time and along with life circumstances.

Consequently, one law developed to meet your expectation today may very well be different from one developed to meet your expectation next year.

The safe position is this: if you use Google, expect that your tracks can and will be followed. Expect that Google will use the information gathered to enhance your online experience. Expect that Google also will use this information for marketing purposes and to increase revenue, just as any other for-profit entity would. Finally, expect that anything you do online, such as search and postings, is immediately public.

If these expectations aren’t satisfactory, you do have options, even if they aren’t apparent or simple. The most obvious option is to choose not to use Google products and services. For many, though, this isn’t reasonable: Google has some excellent products that are free to end users.

If life without Google is untenable, do these two things: read the privacy policy for yourself and manage how your information is shared.

The privacy policy is reader-friendly, relatively brief and opens a world of controls for managing your privacy. The Google Dashboard, for instance, lets you see the data associated with your individual Google Account and provides links to control your personal settings for more than 20 products and services. You also can adjust your ad preferences, change how your profile appears online and remove information about yourself.

Additionally, Google offers an online Family Safety Center that informs and advises parents about issues concerning their children online, including cyber bullying and online predators. It also allows parents to control what their kids can see on YouTube and locks the safe search option.

Without your attention to settings, Google can mine a wealth of data from your online activities.

Google’s work to simplify the privacy policy across all products, communicate that policy to consumers and provide numerous user controls gives little reason to question its motives in making the changes. But understanding exactly how that information may be used adversely against consumers — even in ways Google may not intend — is another issue.

Reprinted with permission from the La Crosse Tribune, 2/19/12.


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