Google isn't being 'forthcoming' with Congress on privacy

House lawmakers grilled Google officials for two hours on Thursday about the company's recent privacy changes, but Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) said she wasn't satisfied with their answers.

"At the end of the day, I don't think their answers to us were very forthcoming necessarily in what this really means for the safety of our families and our children," Bono Mack told reporters after the closed-door briefing. 

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Bono Mack is the chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over data privacy issues. 

Pablo Chavez, Google's director of public policy, and Michael Yang, a Google senior counsel, answered questions from Energy and Commerce lawmakers, including Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Joe Barton (R-Texas), G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

Google has come under fire since it announced last week it will consolidate the privacy policies of its various services into a single document. 

The change allows Google to share user information between its services. Words in private emails could influence search results on YouTube, for example. 

The company says the change makes its privacy policy easier to understand and will help it tailor search results to individual users. Google officials note that users can still adjust their privacy settings.

"By being more simple, [the privacy policy] is actually more complicated," Bono Mack said.

She said the Google officials gave lawmakers a "thorough walkthrough of the technology that exists" to control privacy settings, but that she remains concerned about users' ability to control the information they share with Google. 

"The concern of Congress is how much active participation does a user have to do to protect their own privacy," she said. 

Butterfield emphasized he wants Google to provide a "one-stop" site where users can opt out of tracking across the company's platforms.

Bono Mack said she uses Gmail but is considering switching to a different email service in light of the privacy changes.

Google's officials did not fully explain whether users can delete data that the company has collected about them and how long the company keeps the data, Bono Mack said.

When asked what she thinks lawmakers should do, she said Congress might not be the answer. But she suggested users might switch to new services "if Google goes too far."

She said Google's privacy settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over its Buzz social network did not come up during the briefing, but her aides plan to speak to FTC staffers to determine whether the privacy changes violate the company's agreement. 

Bono Mack said she plans to hold more hearings on privacy issues this year, some of which could focus specifically on Google's changes.

"There's a growing angst in the Congress about privacy — there's no question," she said.

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