Lawmakers grill Google on privacy

Lawmakers expressed concern Thursday about Google's revamped privacy policy and demanded the Web giant detail how it plans to use consumer information collected from sites such as YouTube, Google+ and Gmail.

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

Google announced on Tuesday it will consolidate the privacy policies of its various services into a single document. The company said the change will make its privacy policy simpler and easier to understand, but many consumers are expressing outrage. 

The changes would allow Google to share information between its services. Users could begin seeing advertisements in Gmail based on videos they watched on YouTube, for example.

In an email to Google users on Thursday, the company said the changes will allow it to tailor its services to individual users.

"If you're signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries — or tailor your search results — based on the interests you've expressed in Google+, Gmail, and YouTube," the company explained. "We'll better understand which version of Pink or Jaguar you're searching for and get you those results faster."

The lawmakers asked Google to explain what information it collects, how its various services share information and what control users have over the information they provide to Google.

"While Google suggests that the purpose of this shift in policy is to make the consumer experience simpler, we want to make sure it does not make protecting consumer privacy more complicated," the lawmakers wrote.

They also said users should be able to opt out of the data collection.

The letter was signed by Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Joe Barton (R-Texas), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Every member except Speier serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Google defended the privacy changes and promised to work with lawmakers.

"We look forward to answering their questions and clarifying misconceptions about our privacy policy changes, especially around user controls," a Google spokesman said. "Our goal with the change is to make it easier for users to understand our policy but it's important to understand that our privacy practices have not changed. Users still have control over what data they choose to share when using our services." 

"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. For example, they can use the Google Dashboard to see and control what information we associate with their account. They can also turn off search personalization, turn off or edit their search history, turn their Gmail chats to 'off the record' and use the Ads Preferences Manager to control how ads are tailored to them."

Lawmakers requested a response from Google by Feb. 16. 

In a separate statement, Markey said he will ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to probe whether the changes violate Google's recent settlement with the agency.

"All consumers should have the right to say no to sharing of their personal information, particularly when young people are involved," Markey said. "Google's new privacy policy should enable consumers to opt-out if they don’t want their use of YouTube to morph into YouTrack. Consumers — not corporations — should have control over their own personal information, especially for children and teens."

Google is required to abide by the terms of a settlement it reached last year with the FTC over charges that it mishandled user information with its now defunct Google Buzz social network.

The FTC charged Google with violating its own privacy policy by automatically opting users in to its now defunct social network, Google Buzz.

The settlement bars Google from misrepresenting its privacy practices or changing the way it uses or shares consumer data without obtaining consent first.

— This story was updated at 4:42 p.m.