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How Google can help in the search for the right to privacy

The only Web company that is also a verb has run into the language barrier. How do you say “Google privacy policy” in French? (It’s “regles de confidentialite Google.” Thanks, Google Translate.)

Google’s new privacy policy, which took effect Thursday, is in general a praiseworthy effort. But it has won only faint applause, especially in Europe. This may have less to do with Google specifically than with privacy generally, and with the differing European and American definitions of the term. At its base this is a philosophical dispute, which is oddly encouraging: All everyone has to do is figure out the least disruptive way to disagree and move on.

And disagree they do. The French National Commission for Computing and Civil Liberties, acting on behalf of a group of European Union officials, sent Google a letter Monday saying the new rules may violate European law. Thirty-six U.S. attorneys general also sent a letter to Google Chief Executive Officer Larry Page. Meanwhile, Google has found little support from privacy groups like the U.S.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, which sued in federal court to get the Federal Trade Commission to stop the change.

You’d think Google had announced it would start collecting terabytes of data about you, your neighbor and your dog, if he’s ever online. You’d be wrong: Google already does that. Google is not collecting any new information; rather, it is sharing (with itself) more of the information it already has. As of Thursday, Google says, it is combining “information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products.” The change reduces more than 60 of the company’s privacy policies, spread over as many products, to just one. At about 2,500 words, it is admirably clear and concise.

So what’s not to like? Well, that French letter complains that officials weren’t given enough time to study Google’s new policy and that “trained privacy professionals” — undoubtedly in Brussels — find it confusing. They want more information. That’s easy enough for Google to provide, and it plans to do so.

But there are other concepts, such as the “right to be forgotten,” which are embedded in the European idea of privacy but may prove problematic to honor online. Google has to comply with local laws in all jurisdictions in which it operates. This, however, is an issue that transcends borders.

The American objections to Google’s privacy policy tend to be more legalistic. EPIC, the privacy-rights group, says the new policy violates the consent decree Google signed with the Federal Trade Commission in October, which among other things requires Google to obtain “express affirmative consent” from users for many changes to its policy. The attorneys general carry a brief for the millions of Americans who “bought an Android-powered phone in reliance on Google’s existing privacy policy.”

This editorial appears on Bloomberg View.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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