08/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Consumer Watchdog Takes On Google As Lawmakers Mull Data Privacy Regulation

Consumer Watchdog -- which, as the name implies is a consumer watchdog organization -- is raising alarms over privacy concerns that have been brought to the fore as online search company Google engages in wheeling and dealing before the House Communications and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

At issue is legislation that might affect Google's practice of "behavioral advertising," the process by which Google serves ads to users based upon personal information gleaned from individual users' browsing habits, which many deem invasive. Potentially, lawmakers could inhibit Google's ambitions in this area by making it possible for users to opt out of Google's meticulous tracking. Worse for the online giant is the possibility that users will have to opt in in order to be tracked in the first place. At the very least, Google might find itself subjected to a "Do Not Google" list, similar to the "Do Not Call" lists that have been applied to the telemarketing industry.

In their press release, Consumer Watchdog notes that their concerns have become magnified with the announcement that Google will be introducing their own operating system:

The question has grown more urgent with Google's announcement Wednesday that it will release a new operating system that moves currently computer-based functions to its proprietary Internet "cloud," said Consumer Watchdog. Congress is considering forcing Google to adopt an opt-in model where users must actively allow Google to collect browsing history and user data.

"The Justice Department should be worried when Google tries to obfuscate its data tracking capacity and reach rather than disclose all of it," said Judy Dugan, research director of Consumer Watchdog. "Congress should demand that Google stop tracking Americans' online behavior without their prior permission."


Google's new operating system could also comb users' stored documents for information on those "interest categories." The depth of this potential data collection is not mentioned in the Google spin document. ...Instead, it boasts repeatedly of Google's commitment to transparency and "user friendliness" in delivering the lucrative advertising.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Jamie Court, president of the Consumer Watchdog, was explicit in his concerns: "No one knows more about Americans than Google...The FBI doesn't know as much about us as Google. That has to worry Congress as much as it should worry Americans as they learn about it." Regarding the proposed operating system, Court says, "People just don't get it that your documents are at Google, not on your computer," making those items subject to the same processes that power Google's "behavioral advertising."

To emphasize their point, Consumer Watchdog has obtained a confidential "spin document," thanks to "an anonymous industry insider who has previously provided other Google spin documents." In the first place, yes: "Confidential" "spin documents" on transparency and privacy are awesome monuments to irony. And the document in question, Consumer Watchdog believes, is "associated with a June 18 Congressional hearing that questioned online "behavioral advertising." What makes this better however, is that Consumer Watchdog has done their own "satirical annotation" of this "spin document." And the annotated document is full of fun Google facts, like the byzantine click odyssey one must go on to opt out of being served Google Ads! And the four hours of videos you need to watch to get briefed on privacy!

But the important part of the satiric annotation are the questions for lawmakers that are helpfully provided:

1. Why isn't Google's behavioral advertising opt-in rather than opt-out?

2. Why not prominently include a link allowing users to permanently opt-out of Google tracking?

3. 2008: Google says it has no plans to use behavioral advertising... [that] it doesn't work. What changed?

4. Is Google's behavioral advertising really about delivering more interesting ads or is it about expanding its data collection and targeting activities?

And, just for emphasis, they direct people to this video, by the hilarious comedy group The Big Honkin':




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