NAI-Google Tiff Clouds Real Privacy Issues

There are many reasons to be concerned by Google's privacy policy. But the fact that the company doesn't link to it on its home page isn't one of them.

Google is now applying for membership in the Network Advertising Initiative, a group that was formed largely in response to concerns about whether online advertising posed a threat to Web users' privacy. But apparently Google's application has a snag: The company doesn't want to clutter its home page with a link to its privacy policy.

The NAI, which includes AOL's, Yahoo and Google's DoubleClick, requires that members "clearly and conspicuously" tell Web users about data collection policies and how to opt out of receiving ads based on other sites they've visited. This mandate usually is interpreted as requiring that companies place a link to their privacy policy on the home page.

Google doesn't link to its privacy policy on the home page, but takes the position that it doesn't need to because the information is easily obtainable. "By simply typing 'Google privacy policy' into the Google search engine, consumers can easily find not only our privacy policy, but additional information about privacy," Google spokesman Steve Langdon told The New York Times.



This superficial dispute about the privacy policy's placement shouldn't cloud the substantive issues -- Google's retention of users' search queries and whether it will combine that information with DoubleClick data. Google retains logs showing the queries that originated from search users' IP addresses. While an IP address is itself just a series of numbers, it's not difficult to figure out the name attached to a specific address. Even without obtaining Internet service provider records, just knowing all of the search queries to originate from the same address can reveal users' names.

Google has said it will "anonymize" the data after 18 months, but critics say the company's proposed method for doing so -- deleting a few numbers of the IP address -- won't effectively mask people's identities.

The NAI should challenge Google about its practices, and not let itself get sidetracked with discussions about the look of the company's home page.

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