Google Removes Restriction on Personal Web Tracking

by Vins
Published: Updated:

In June 2016, Google deleted a section of its privacy policy that kept web-browsing records and users’ names separate. ProPublica analyzed the changes in October, 2016, revealing the new policies.

When Google purchased DoubleClick, a digital advertising company, in 2007, Google gained access to cookie information and browsing habits of their users. Now, personally identifiable information, like one’s name, email content, and web-browsing history can be used to create customized ads and consumer “super profiles.” Google’s privacy policy reveals that it collects device information, location, and cookies to offer tailored content. As Julia Angwin of ProPublica reported, according to a Google spokesperson, Andrea Faville, the company made the changes to adapt to the new ways that people use Google’s services, across different platforms. Faville stressed that the change is optional: users must opt-in to the changes.

Two nonprofit organizations, Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking them to review the policy. They claim Google’s warning was misleading: Google did not reveal the significance of the change or make it easy for users to decline. They believe that Google has intentionally unveiled its new policy quietly and incrementally—and that, if Google had implemented it all at once, it would be illegal.

According to an October 2016 report by Olivia Solon for the Guardian, Facebook has been using similar tracking strategie to identify users by name when they visit sites that utilize a Facebook “like” or “share” button. Many other Internet companies already use this technology to share consumer data with advertising agencies. Google, however, has access to highly personal information in large quantities, making consumers nervous about their ability to search the Internet anonymously.

Google collects a large amount of information from numerous sites visited by its users, including Google services like YouTube, Maps, and related apps. They can track how often users visit seemingly unrelated apps like Snapchat and Instagram if the user is on a device that is signed in to a Google account. However, if users unwittingly accepted the agreement, they can go through a series of steps to disable the service. However, it takes some searching and awareness on a user’s part to reverse the action, and even then, they may not be able to erase data from their account on another device.

This story has primarily been covered by tech web sites, but did receive little coverage in the establishment press. In October 2016, for example, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the complaint about Google’s privacy policy filed with the FTC by Consumer Watchdog and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Google received wide media coverage in 2012 when it made controversial updates to its privacy policy.

Sources:

Julia Angwin, “Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking,” ProPublica, October 21, 2016, https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking.

“Google Faces FTC Complaint over Changes to Privacy Policy,” Telecompaper, December 20, 2016, accessible at http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/story/google-faces-ftc-complaint-over-changes-privacy-policy.

Olivia Solon, “Google’s Ad Tracking Is as Creepy as Facebook’s. Here’s How to Disable It,” Guardian, October 21, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/21/how-to-disable-google-ad-tracking-gmail-youtube-browser-history

Student Researcher: Lillian Kluge (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)