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Google Still Planning March 1 Privacy Policy Change

A coalition of consumer groups Wednesday made a last-ditch effort to get Google to delay the March 1 changes to its privacy policy, but it did not appear that the search company would be persuaded.

Google has heretofore declined to do so, pointing out that users can choose not to use its services, that they still have plenty of control over their data, and that it is simplifying the privacy policy, as many in Washington have asked it to do.

In a letter to Google chief Larry Page, the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), whose U.S. members include Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America, Public Knowledge, AARP and the ACLU, said it was asking him "simply and directly to suspend" the March 1 modification.

Google in a statement indicated it was going ahead with its plans. "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 spokesman said in an e-mail to B&C/Multi. "Since announcing the changes on Jan. 24, we've undertaken the most extensive notification in our history to let our users know that the updated privacy policy takes effect on March 1."

TACD called it "unfair and unwise" for Google to change the terms of its privacy policy given the wealth of information it has already collected under other terms. It also pointed to reports that privacy settings in browsers Safari and Explorer have been sidestepped. "We're continuing to offer choice and control over how people use our services," said Google. "Of course we are happy to discuss this approach with regulators globally."

"[Y]ou propose to combine data from all of your services, provided by your users in very different contexts and for very different reasons, into a single profile without user consent and without any meaningful opportunity for users to opt-out," TACD wrote. "Going forward with this plan will be a mistake. We ask you to reconsider."

Separately, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), co-chair of the House privacy caucus, had asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the Google policy change violated the terms of its settlement with the FTC last year over Google Buzz privacy policy issues.

"It may be leap day, but Google's privacy policy change is a huge leap backward for consumer privacy," said Markey in a statement. "All consumers should have the right to say no to sharing of their personal information, particularly when children and teens are involved. However, coupled with recent discoveries about Google's efforts to bypass the privacy settings of Internet browsers in order to track users' online behavior, the company's changes call into question how Google plans to use this information now and in the future. I will continue to monitor this situation."

Markey's office pointed out Markey had asked the FTC for input on the policy, but did not say what the FTC's response had been, if any. A Markey spokesperson was not available for comment.

The FTC would not comment on its investigation beyond the following statement.

"The FTC takes compliance with our consent orders very seriously and always looks carefully at any evidence or allegations that they are being violated," said an FTC spokesperson. "Allegations have been made that Google's recently announced changes to its privacy policies and practices violate a Commission order. All orders are subject to a detailed and vigorous compliance review process, but such investigations are non-public, and we therefore cannot comment further."

Asked on C-SPAN's Newsmakers program last week about his thoughts on the Google change, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said he could not comment beyond saying that Google has made its new privacy policy clear, but that it is offering consumers a "fairly binary and somewhat brutal choice." Google has pointed out that no one is obliged to use its services if they do not like the policy.