Google Privacy Changes Attract New Scrutiny From Hill

A bipartisan group of House Energy and Commerce members asked Google on Thursday to explain why it plans to start tracking users and collecting information about them across all the company's products.

"As an Internet giant, Google has a responsibility to protect the privacy of its users," the eight lawmakers wrote Google CEO Larry Page. "Therefore, we are writing to learn why Google feels that these changes are necessary, and what steps are being taken to ensure protection of consumers' privacy rights."

The letter was signed by Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., as well as Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who is the only signer who doesn't sit on Energy and Commerce.

Even before announcing its proposed privacy changes on Tuesday, Google was already under scrutiny after reaching a settlement last year with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that the company deceived its Gmail users in the rollout of its now-defunct social networking service Buzz. Google is also the subject of an antitrust probe by the FTC.

The lawmakers questioned why users are not allowed to opt out of Google's privacy changes. "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," they added.

The representatives asked Google to answer by Feb. 16 a long list of questions about the changes, including what information it now collects and will collect after the changes go into effect on March 1, whether it shares such data with anyone else, how the privacy changes affect users of its Android mobile phone operating system, and what protections will be provided to children and teens.

"We believe this new, simpler policy will make it easier for people to understand our privacy practices as well as enable Google to improve the services we offer," Google's Alma Whitten said in a blog post Tuesday.

Google, meanwhile, now says that the privacy changes will not apply to government workers who use its Google Apps for Government enterprise email system. Google made the comments after Karen Evans, the former director of electronic government in the administration of former President George W. Bush, said the proposed changes would have a "serious impact" on government users.