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Consumer groups say Google plays hide and seek with its privacy policy

June 3, 2008 |  1:36 pm
Google homepage

(UPDATE: The chief of California's Office of Privacy Protection weighed in on the flap.)

Google and privacy advocates are in a fight over valuable real estate: Google.com.

Several top consumer groups wrote an open letter to the Web search leader today, accusing it of violating a California law by failing to link to its privacy policy from Google.com.

Google's response: “We share the view that privacy information should be easy to find, and we believe our privacy policy is readily accessible to our users."

EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg

The privacy advocates said Google didn't want to clutter up its famously austere homepage with a privacy link. "Google's homepage will easily accommodate this important seven-letter word," Beth Givens, director of San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said in a statement. Her group was joined by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Their letter (download here) said the "straightforward reading" of the law was "that Google must place the word 'privacy' on the Google.com web page," with that word linking to the policy explaining what the company does with information about its users. The groups pointed out that most major sites have such links, including Yahoo, Microsoft and Facebook.

The privacy advocates said that they were following up on a New York Times report last week that highlighted a portion of the law saying that sites would be in compliance if they had a privacy link and placed it "on the homepage or the first significant page after entering the Web site."

As we noted then, that standard is just one option under the law. Another option is to post a hyperlink "that is so displayed that a reasonable person would notice it." Google's link is on its About page, which is linked to from Google.com. Google spokesman Steve Langdon told us then that the "reasonable person" clause and others in the law protected it.

"I'm sure they can construct an argument" that a reasonable person would look at the About page, said Marc Rotenberg (left), executive director of Washington-based EPIC. But he and his allies on a conference call this morning said they were sure the law was on their side.

-- Joseph Menn

Google homepage image courtesy of Google. Photo of Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director, courtesy of EPIC

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