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Attorneys general have 'strong concerns' about Google privacy rules

Doug Gross, CNN
Google says its new privacy policy is meant to be clearer to users and doesn't change privacy controls.
Google says its new privacy policy is meant to be clearer to users and doesn't change privacy controls.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Attorneys general from 36 states object to Google privacy changes
  • They say policy "appears to invade consumer privacy"
  • Google says privacy controls aren't changing but the policy is being simplified
  • The new policy goes into effect March 1 for all Google products

(CNN) -- The top government lawyers from three dozen states sent a letter to Google on Wednesday, expressing "strong concerns" with the privacy policy the Web giant intends to roll out soon.

"On a fundamental level, the policy appears to invade consumer privacy by automatically sharing personal information consumers input into one Google product with all Google products," reads the letter sent to Google CEO Larry Page and signed by 36 state attorneys general.

Last month, Google announced the new policy, which spells out how the company will collect and compile information to create a profile of users based on their activity across all of its various sites and tools. That includes Google search, Gmail, the Google+ social site and phones running its Android operating system.

Privacy advocates objected to the policy -- which is set to go into effect March 1. Eight members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote their own letter to Page, asking for clarification about the changes.

In Wednesday's letter, the state attorneys called the policy "troubling for a number of reasons," saying that users should be able to use one product without having its information shared with others.

"Consumers have diverse interests and concerns, and may want the information in their Web History to be kept separate from the information they exchange via Gmail," they said. "Likewise, consumers may be comfortable with Google knowing their Search queries but not with it knowing their whereabouts, yet the new privacy policy appears to give them no choice in the matter, further invading their privacy."

Google said Wednesday it's willing to discuss the policy with government officials, but that its intention is to make using its products easier and more transparent.

"Our updated Privacy Policy will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users," a Google spokesman said in a written statement. "We've undertaken the most extensive notification effort in Google's history, and we're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services services. Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

In a blog post when the policy was announced, Google's Betsy Masiello noted that many of Google's products, including YouTube and search, don't require users to be signed in to use them. Other tools allow for "incognito" modes and there are other privacy tools that can be used, she said.

A later post from Google Public Policy Director Pablo Chavez said that the company's privacy policies, but not its privacy controls, are changing.

They are "trying to make them simpler and more understandable, which is something that lawmakers and regulators have asked technology companies to do," he wrote. "By folding more than 60 product-specific privacy policies into our main Google one, we're explaining our privacy commitments to users of those products in 85% fewer words."

That wasn't enough for the attorneys general. They singled out users of Android phones, which make up about 50% of the U.S. smartphone market, saying they won't be able to "opt out" without buying a new phone.

"No doubt many of these consumers bought an Android-powered phone in reliance on Google's existing privacy policy, which touted to these consumers that 'We will not reduce your rights under this Privacy Policy without your explicit consent,' " the letter said.

"That promise appears not to be honored by the new privacy policy."

The letter asks Google to meet with representatives of the attorneys general before the policy goes into effect "to work toward a solution that will best protect the privacy needs of those who use Google's products."

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