A recent ICOMP Conference on ‘Data Protection and Profiling’ in Brussels focussed primarily on the implementation of Google’s new privacy policy on 1 March 2012. ICOMP provides a discussion forum for organisations and policy makers relating to the online marketplace aimed at supporting principles related to a transparent and competitive Internet.

There was some controversy at the conference when one of the speakers, Pamela Jones Harbour (former US Federal Trade Commissioner and partner at Fulbright & Jaworski), admitted that Microsoft is a client of hers and that violating users’ privacy is very good for business at Google because of the company’s advertising model. Her primary argument was that data is today’s currency and large companies like Google have a near monopoly on data.

Another speaker, Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch UK, questioned whether users actually read privacy policies and stated that despite Google’s new policy having been the best advertised policy change to date, only 12 percent of users had read it. He added that “Google is putting advertiser’s interests before user privacy … [and while a] simpler policy may make it easier for Google to exploit personal information, … it does not make the implications more transparent for users.”

The ICOMP Conference documentation included two documents focusing on Google’s new privacy policy. The first, “Quotes and Questions on Google’s New Privacy Policy”, pulled together quotes from consumer advocates, industry experts, and government officials, and poses some crucial ‘unanswered’ questions to Google. Examples of questions include:

  • Why will Google not provide an ‘opt out’ option in its new policy?
  • How can users learn which types of data are being collected about them? The Dashboard feature only provides information for 20 products, not the 60+ products the new policy covers.
  • Will Google’s privacy policy apply to data collected from users before the 1 March 2012 effective date?
  • How many users did Google expect to leave Google? The only apparent opt-out available to Google users is to cease logging in to Google products and close their accounts.

The second document, entitled “Google’s New Privacy Policy: European Privacy and Competition Concerns”, listed three fundamental and controversial concerns: Google Believes It Is Above the Law; Google’s Actions Reflect a Pattern of Disregard for Consumer Privacy; and Google’s Mission: To Amass and Exploit User Information. The document provided examples, such as allegations that Google knowingly sold and profited from advertisements by foreign pharmacies selling illegal prescription drugs to US consumers, as well as profiting from adverts for illegal products targeted at UK consumers, such as fake ID cards, passports, and fake tickets to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The conference raised some very serious allegations, and since members of the European Parliament and other European regulators were in attendance, it will be interesting to see whether these allegations and concerns appear in the reports that are expected from CNIL’s and APAC’s investigations into Google’s new privacy policy.