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