GOOGLE FAKES COMPLIANCE WITH PRIVACY LAW. OBSCURE BLOGGER DEMANDS INVESTIGATION. DEVELOPING . . .

by on July 4, 2008 · 39 comments

Google has changed its homepage, providing a link to its privacy policy “Privacy Center” on the homepage. So ends one of the highest dramas to grip the privacy world in a generation. I’m being facetious.

On the Google Blog, Marissa Mayer explains how Google has long been careful not to crowd its homepage – and remains so: they took a word out before including “privacy” – ummm, actually “privacy”. Google had come under fire recently for not having a link to its privacy policy on the homepage, a triviality that I wrote about here and here.

Would that this were the end of Google’s privacy troubles though. It is still a fiendish violator of the law. The facetiousness continues.

The privacy legislation California passed in 2003 requires a thing that Google still contemptuously refuses. Google must “conspicuously post” its privacy policy on its Web site, yet it has decided that it will not, flouting the will of the people’s representatives.

Here’s what it means to “conspicuously post” under the California statute:

(b) The term “conspicuously post” with respect to a privacy policy
shall include posting the privacy policy through any of the
following:
(1) A Web page on which the actual privacy policy is posted if the
Web page is the homepage or first significant page after entering
the Web site.
(2) An icon that hyperlinks to a Web page on which the actual
privacy policy is posted, if the icon is located on the homepage or
the first significant page after entering the Web site, and if the
icon contains the word “privacy.” The icon shall also use a color
that contrasts with the background color of the Web page or is
otherwise distinguishable.
(3) A text link that hyperlinks to a Web page on which the actual
privacy policy is posted, if the text link is located on the homepage
or first significant page after entering the Web site, and if the
text link does one of the following:
(A) Includes the word “privacy.”
(B) Is written in capital letters equal to or greater in size than
the surrounding text.
(C) Is written in larger type than the surrounding text, or in
contrasting type, font, or color to the surrounding text of the same
size, or set off from the surrounding text of the same size by
symbols or other marks that call attention to the language.

Google’s posting meets none of these standards.

The privacy policy is not on the home page or first significant page, so (1) is a no-go. Google doesn’t use an icon so (2) is right out. Following the privacy link brings you to the “Google Privacy Center,” from which you have to click yet again to reach the privacy policy. Meaning: Google doesn’t meet the standards of (3), which requires “[a] text link that hyperlinks to a Web page on which the actual privacy policy is posted.”

In other words, all this show of providing a link to their privacy policy is a subterfuge designed by Google to obscure their information policies from the public. (Facetious! Remember?)

Can we just repeal California’s stupid privacy legislation now? (Not facetious!)

  • http://lyrictalk.net Anthony

    Chill, dude. Google links to their privacy center, which contains the privacy policy for all the sites they own and operate. Furthermore, they provide a link to plain-English description and highlight points of their privacy policy from the page they are linking to. What they’re doing is far better than the 5 pages of pure legal-speak that most sites have which only serve to confuse and frustrate us non-lawyer types. I applaud Google for having a user-friendly privacy center. You’re being pedantic, and quite frankly, if they were sued over this, I think a judge would laugh the plaintiff out of the court room.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/jim-harper Jim Harper

    Despite their number, my declarations of facetiousness obviously didn’t have their intended affect.

    I was being kind of obscure. My point was to deride the irrelevant, detailed regulation represented by the California statute.

  • http://lyrictalk.net Anthony

    Chill, dude. Google links to their privacy center, which contains the privacy policy for all the sites they own and operate. Furthermore, they provide a link to plain-English description and highlight points of their privacy policy from the page they are linking to. What they’re doing is far better than the 5 pages of pure legal-speak that most sites have which only serve to confuse and frustrate us non-lawyer types. I applaud Google for having a user-friendly privacy center. You’re being pedantic, and quite frankly, if they were sued over this, I think a judge would laugh the plaintiff out of the court room.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/jim-harper Jim Harper

    Despite their number, my declarations of facetiousness obviously didn’t have their intended affect.

    I was being kind of obscure. My point was to deride the irrelevant, detailed regulation represented by the California statute.

  • Bill

    You need to chill, dude, and re-read the article. Obviously, Jim was being facetious (“not meant to be taken seriously or literally”).

    I have to admit, California’s law is beyond stupid, but isn’t that what we expect from politicians in general, and California politicians specifically.

  • DB

    We obviously don’t want the legislature micromanaging the font size of text on home pages, but I think you are too cavalier in your treatment of this issue.

    On the Internet, privacy is currency. The point of the privacy policy is not to protect a user’s privacy, but to disclose how much privacy the user must forfeit to enjoy the service.

    To me, a site without an up-front privacy notice implies that the service is “free,” when in fact it is not. While the California law may be absurd, existing protections against fraud may apply here. What if a restaurant were to change its prices after you’ve finished your meal and stick you with a bill much higher than expected?

    If you have to use the service before you can access the privacy policy, you’ve already paid before learning the price.

  • Bill

    You need to chill, dude, and re-read the article. Obviously, Jim was being facetious (“not meant to be taken seriously or literally”).

    I have to admit, California’s law is beyond stupid, but isn’t that what we expect from politicians in general, and California politicians specifically.

  • Jim Harper

    Thanks for your comment, DB. We’re reaching the nub of the issue (despite the confusion I sowed), which is the relevance of notice to consumer protection and empowerment.

    I agree that information is a sort of currency that people trade on the Internet in order to get goods and services that are otherwise free. Your analogy to restaurant menus is a good one. What should be done to ensure that people are aware of the prices charged? In the case of restaurants, “nothing” seems to be the answer.

    With a few exceptions, such as per-item pricing at grocery stores when UPC coding came into widespread use, most every seller has learned that quoting a price ahead of time is almost always required to get someone to buy from them. (Regulators demanded per-item pricing on groceries before things could play out, but I suspect there would have been natural convergence on informing consumers adequately well of prices because they demand to know that. Today, there are probably places where per-item pricing still required even though it’s no longer needed – because of prices on shelves, for example – meaning higher prices to consumers.)

    When a restaurant menu doesn’t have prices, what’s the assumption? That the meal is very, very expensive. I think absence of a privacy policy would signal the same thing about the “cost” of visiting a site in terms of personal information.

    Privacy policies tend to “signal” to people that they are paying a relatively low cost even when the policy itself *says* the opposite. Especially when privacy policies are required by the government, that may suggest to the average consumer (not nearly as focused on this as any of us) that their privacy has government-backed protection, though the terms of the policy do no privacy protecting at all.

    So I’m leery of privacy policies as a way of actually getting people’s privacy protected. People don’t read them, and so don’t act on the knowledge of what’s in them. The California law may perversely be fooling consumers into thinking their privacy is secure when it’s not.

    I’d rather have consumers fending for themselves – and knowing it – so that they will use their savvy rather than falling back on consumer protection laws that, in this case, don’t protect them at all.

  • DB

    We obviously don’t want the legislature micromanaging the font size of text on home pages, but I think you are too cavalier in your treatment of this issue.

    On the Internet, privacy is currency. The point of the privacy policy is not to protect a user’s privacy, but to disclose how much privacy the user must forfeit to enjoy the service.

    To me, a site without an up-front privacy notice implies that the service is “free,” when in fact it is not. While the California law may be absurd, existing protections against fraud may apply here. What if a restaurant were to change its prices after you’ve finished your meal and stick you with a bill much higher than expected?

    If you have to use the service before you can access the privacy policy, you’ve already paid before learning the price.

  • Jim Harper

    Thanks for your comment, DB. We’re reaching the nub of the issue (despite the confusion I sowed), which is the relevance of notice to consumer protection and empowerment.

    I agree that information is a sort of currency that people trade on the Internet in order to get goods and services that are otherwise free. Your analogy to restaurant menus is a good one. What should be done to ensure that people are aware of the prices charged? In the case of restaurants, “nothing” seems to be the answer.

    With a few exceptions, such as per-item pricing at grocery stores when UPC coding came into widespread use, most every seller has learned that quoting a price ahead of time is almost always required to get someone to buy from them. (Regulators demanded per-item pricing on groceries before things could play out, but I suspect there would have been natural convergence on informing consumers adequately well of prices because they demand to know that. Today, there are probably places where per-item pricing still required even though it’s no longer needed – because of prices on shelves, for example – meaning higher prices to consumers.)

    When a restaurant menu doesn’t have prices, what’s the assumption? That the meal is very, very expensive. I think absence of a privacy policy would signal the same thing about the “cost” of visiting a site in terms of personal information.

    Privacy policies tend to “signal” to people that they are paying a relatively low cost even when the policy itself *says* the opposite. Especially when privacy policies are required by the government, that may suggest to the average consumer (not nearly as focused on this as any of us) that their privacy has government-backed protection, though the terms of the policy do no privacy protecting at all.

    So I’m leery of privacy policies as a way of actually getting people’s privacy protected. People don’t read them, and so don’t act on the knowledge of what’s in them. The California law may perversely be fooling consumers into thinking their privacy is secure when it’s not.

    I’d rather have consumers fending for themselves – and knowing it – so that they will use their savvy rather than falling back on consumer protection laws that, in this case, don’t protect them at all.

  • PRMan

    They should require the privacy policy link on any form submit page gathering information such as name, address, credit card, etc.

    What’s the site going to do on any other page, anyway?

    Track my IP address?

    Track what pages I visited?

    Those are the defaults on every web site anyway, so who cares?

  • PRMan

    They should require the privacy policy link on any form submit page gathering information such as name, address, credit card, etc.

    What’s the site going to do on any other page, anyway?

    Track my IP address?

    Track what pages I visited?

    Those are the defaults on every web site anyway, so who cares?

  • Jim Harper

    The tracking of IP addresses and page-visits is a privacy concern, but it analogizes to the information you share by walking around in public – just that it’s digital and so very persistent. In a few short years everyone will know what they share automatically just by navigating the Web. They will adjust their behavior accordingly, privacy notice or not.

  • Jim Harper

    The tracking of IP addresses and page-visits is a privacy concern, but it analogizes to the information you share by walking around in public – just that it’s digital and so very persistent. In a few short years everyone will know what they share automatically just by navigating the Web. They will adjust their behavior accordingly, privacy notice or not.

  • http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_identity.php d roux

    http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_ide

    It is now clear that a blogger’s identity/anonymity is not protected by law.

  • http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_identity.php d roux

    http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_ide

    It is now clear that a blogger’s identity/anonymity is not protected by law.

  • http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_identity.php d roux

    http://www.ibk-lawyers.com/leadcase/blogger_ide

    It is now clear that a blogger’s identity/anonymity is not protected by law.

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