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Google launches new travel tools

From making airline reservations to destination recommendations, the tech giant hopes to cover every facet of travel

It’s tough to find a nook or cranny where Google doesn’t have a presence. One of its more quiet in-roads has been the travel sector where it’s built a port...

Google updates users on their ‘right to be forgotten’ requests

The company says it’s taken care of 2.4 million URLs so far

In a landmark May 2014 edict, the European Court of Justice gave internet users a huge plum when the court established the “right to be forgotten,” permitting Europeans to request any information about themselves be delisted from search results.

Now, four years later, Google reports it’s made good on requests covering 2.4 million URLs.

In a report released Monday, Google further fleshed out that metric by saying those requests comprise only 43.3 percent of the URLs it has reviewed. The company claims that deciding what to delist is problematic.

“Search engines like Google must consider if the information in question is ‘inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive’—and whether there is a public interest in the information remaining available in search results,” said Michee Smith, Google’s product lead on the project.

The tech company also published a draft of a research paper called Three Years of the Right to be Forgotten, which it submitted for peer review to the Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium. The research annotates Google reviewers’ analysis of the ways Europeans are using their “right to be forgotten.”

What are users asking to be removed?

Consumers have a large role to play when it comes to their right to be forgotten. In addition to making the initial request, users also need to decide which information they want filtered out of search results.

Google says there have been two dominant requests from consumers. The number one request – 33 percent – is tied to social media and directory services containing personal info.

The second dominant request – 20 percent of the requested URLs – is connected to news outlets and government websites, usually those related to a requester’s legal history. The remaining 47% of Google’s delisting requests is comprised of miscellaneous content across the internet.

Included in each request set is data pertaining to:

  • Personal information: contact info, addresses, or images and videos

  • Sensitive personal information: medical status, sexual orientation, creed, ethnicity, or political affiliation

  • Professional information: work address, contact information, or neutral stories about their business activities

  • Personal or professional wrongdoing: convictions of a crime, acquittals, or exonerations

  • Political information: criticism of a requester’s political or government activities, or information about their platform

Who’s making the requests?

Private individuals account for 89 percent of the requests. Minors, corporations, government officials, and non-government public figures (like a popular actor or musician) account for the bulk of the remaining 11 percent.

While Google’s effort appears proactive, the company didn’t take on this project willingly and was concerned that the European court’s decision might spread to other countries. There was also a hiccup along the way when the company released an earlier transparency report that contained source code, which revealed information it had previously refused to make public.

In a landmark May 2014 edict, the European Court of Justice gave internet users a huge plum when the court established the “right to be forgotten,” permitt...

Google raises the security bar for websites

Sites not using HTTPS will be flagged as ‘not secure’ starting this summer

Google ratcheted up the importance it places on security today. The company announced that it will begin marking all non-HTTPS sites as “not secure” in its Chrome browser starting in July 2018 with the release of Chrome 68.

In layman’s language, HTTPS is the protocol over which data between your computer and the website you’re connected to is sent. The “S” means the connection is “secure” and that any communication between you and the website is encrypted and less prone to attack.

The most common uses of HTTPS have been for sites who deal in the exchange of money with services such as online shopping or online banking.

Google’s makes good on its promise

Starting in 2015, Google began its watchdog campaign to make security a key component of its Chrome browser. At that time, the company’s audit found that 79 of the worldwide web’s non-Google sites did not use HTTPS as its default protocol. Many of those sites had no encryption at all or used outdated versions. Some of the biggest offenders at the time included Wired.com, IMDB.com, and the New York Times, which has since moved to secure its site.

Google’s evangelism and tenacity have paid off. Its latest scorecard shows reports that 81 of the top 100 sites used HTTPS by default, with 68 percent of Chrome traffic on both Windows and Android protected and 78 percent of Chrome traffic on Chrome OS and Mac protected.

“Chrome’s new interface will help users understand that all HTTP sites are not secure, and continue to move the web towards a secure HTTPS web by default,” said Emily Schechter, Chrome Security Product Manager.

Does this affect you?

If you’re one of the 56 percent of users who prefer the Chrome browser over other options, then it’s likely that you’ll be seeing notifications for websites not using the HTTPS protocol starting in July.

However, Schecter says that other groups may be more affected by the change. At a 2016 developer summit, she pointed out that business owners who run their own website can benefit from converting to the HTTPS protocol.

“HTTPS is easier and cheaper than ever before, and it unlocks both performance improvements and powerful new features that are too sensitive for HTTP,” she said.

Most hosting companies offer site security for $15 or less a year. There’s even an organization -- LetsEncrypt.org -- funded by the likes of Chrome, Facebook, Shopify, and Cisco, that offers trusted certificates for free.

Google ratcheted up the importance it places on security today. The company announced that it will begin marking all non-HTTPS sites as “not secure” in its...

Google gets into hyperlocal news business

Google is rolling out ‘Bulletin,’ a publishing platform that allows anyone to publish local news stories

Will unpaid Google “contributors” replace professional beat reporters? Google is rolling out a publishing platform that encourages anyone to publish a hyperlocal news story. The tech giant says that its new application Bulletin will allow “for contributing hyperlocal stories about your community, for your community, right from your phone.”

“If you are comfortable taking photos or sending messages, you can create a Bulletin story!” Google says.

Of course, the ease of web publishing and social media already makes it easy for anyone to contribute stories about their community right from their phone. But Bulletin, which is currently being tested in Nashville and Oakland, is specifically targeted to the local journalism market.

Competing with local news outlets?

At the application’s launch in Nashville, attended by a Slate reporter, Google reps described Bulletin as a website that would let people publish news stories “instantly to the web without having to do any setup.”

It’s unclear whether such a platform would help or hinder local newspapers. Experts in the media industry have long described an unhealthy, codependent relationship between newspapers and tech giants

“The web was once thought to be a cure-all for media industries' growth problems,” Bloomberg’s technology columnist Shira Ovide wrote several years ago.  “Media's shift to the internet has meant bigger audiences, yes, but the piles of advertising money have shrunk or are barely growing.”

Facebook has also recently announced measures to highlight local news with a feature called “Today In.” At the same time, the platform is reformulating its news feed in a manner that may draw less traffic to newspapers and digital media.

In October, Facebook removed professional news organizations from the main news feed in six countries. Instead, only personal posts and paid advertisements are featured in the main feeds, a move that journalists in the countries affected described as “Orwellian.”

Will unpaid Google “contributors” replace professional beat reporters? Google is rolling out a publishing platform that encourages anyone to publish a hype...

Google tool will let users mute 'reminders' about products they browsed online

The tech giant is rolling out another ad-blocking feature, but it only works on companies that partner with Google

Google is rolling out a new ad-blocking feature that allows people to mute so-called “reminder” advertisements, the company announced in a blog post today.

In the coming months, Google says it plans to expand the tool to YouTube, Gmail, and Search. The tool only works on advertisers that partner with Google.

The feature is just the latest in many popular ad-blocking tools that Google has introduced since 2012. The technology has caused a rift between consumers who want an ad-free experience and people who make a living posting content online, such as paid YouTube posters.

The YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, also known as PewDiePie, in 2015 described ad-blocking technology as “devastating” to newcomers in the industry.

The reminder ads are labeled as such because they literally remind consumers about a product  they had been browsing earlier---say, a pair of shoes that a shopper looked at online but opted not to buy, as the example that Google gives.

In recent years, reminder ads have also come under the scrutiny of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency determined that reminder ads should not be used on drugs that come with severe boxed warnings about its side effects because ““a reminder ad does not contain risk information about the drug,” nor do they “discuss the condition treated or how well the drug works.”

Google is rolling out a new ad-blocking feature that allows people to mute so-called “reminder” advertisements, the company announced in a blog post today....

Hate autoplay videos? Google has some good news for you

The company says these ads will become less invasive and easier to control

On the list of things that annoy consumers when browsing the web, autoplay videos -- which start playing on their own while you are reading an article or searching -- are near the top. After all, there’s nothing more frustrating than having to search through all of your browser tabs to find the source of a loud soft drink or foot cream video advertisement.

Luckily, Google Chrome users may not need to worry about these intrusive ads much longer. Google announced that, starting with Chrome 64, autoplay videos will only be allowed to pop up if they won’t play sound or when a user has indicated that they have an interest in the media by clicking somewhere on the screen.

“This will allow autoplay to occur when users want media to play, and respect users’ wishes when they don’t,” said Google software engineer Mounir Lamouri in a company blog post.

In addition to the Chrome 64 changes, Lamouri announced a new feature for Chrome 63 that will allow users to completely disable audio for individual sites. Sites that have been muted will retain that status between different sessions, so users won’t have to worry about it every time they go to browse.

“These changes will give users greater control over media playing in their browser, while making it easier for publishers to implement autoplay where it benefits the user,” Lamouri concluded.

Developer recommendations

Of course, consumers aren’t the only ones that will need to be apprised of these changes. On its Chromium Projects page, Google explains that developers will likely need to revise their use of autoplay videos to get the most out of them.

In its developer recommendations, the company says that autoplay videos should be used sparingly to engage users, as unwanted video playback can often turn users off to a particular site.

Additionally, the company says that developers who have shied away from autoplay might consider using muted content to warm users up to the idea of exploring additional content.  

The new autoplay functions are slated to roll out in January 2018.

On the list of things that annoy consumers when browsing the web, autoplay videos -- which start playing on their own while you are reading an article or s...

Google adds new editing features to its suite of productivity apps

Users can now stay more organized when using Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides

Business professionals and consumers alike have long used Google’s suite of productivity apps to collaboratively work on projects with others. Now, the company is giving Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides a bit of an update to make that even easier.

In a blog post released Wednesday, Google product manager Birkan Icacan detailed a host of new editing features and improvements meant to help users stay organized and track progress.

“Today, we’re introducing new updates to better help with ‘version control,’ to customize tools for your workflows, and to help teams locate information when they need it,” the blog post reads.

New features and functionality

Google says that many of the new changes will vastly improve how teams work on complex documents and agreements that go through several iterations and require multiple edits. Icacan says users will now be able to:

  • Name versions of a Doc, Sheet, or Slide. Users will now be able to add a custom name to a version of a document, which will help track progress that has been made. Teams can organize and track changes by looking under the “Version history” tab on web-based versions of the apps.
  • Preview “clean versions” of Docs. This new tool will allow users to see what their Doc looks like without comments or suggested edits muddling the screen. To use the feature, go to “Select Tools,” “Review suggested edits,” and click on “Preview accept all” or “Preview reject all.”
  • Accept or reject all edit suggestions at once. Going through a document and manually accepting or rejecting all edits can take time. Users who want to implement changes more quickly can now choose to accept or reject all edits by going to “Select Tools,” “Review suggested edits,” and clicking on “Accept all” or “Reject all.”
  • Add suggestions from an iPhone, iPad, or Android device. Users have long complained that they could only add suggestions from a desktop or laptop. Now, making suggestions can be done on the go with a variety of different mobile devices. Just click on the “…” menu on the bottom right of the screen, turn on “Suggest changes,” and toggle “suggestion mode” to get started.

Among the other changes, users will now be able to take advantage of new built-in templates that integrate with outside services like DocuSign and LegalZoom. The company has also created a new feature called Google Cloud search that will allow G Suite Business and Enterprise customers to integrate Docs and Slides via the Explore feature.

To learn more about the changes, check out Google’s blog post here.

Business professionals and consumers alike have long used Google’s suite of productivity apps to collaboratively work on projects with others. Now, the com...

Google steps up efforts to fight terrorist and extremist content

The company says it will be expanding its anti-radicalization policies

In recent months, Google has taken several steps to clean up its algorithms and better serve its network of users by removing predatory payday loan ads and rooting out fake news. Now the company is stepping up its game when it comes to fighting online extremism and terrorism.

In a Google blog post, general counsel Kent Walker said the company will be taking four additional steps to remove violent, extremist content and counter radicalization efforts on its platforms. The announcement comes in the wake of several high-profile terror attacks across the United Kingdom and the U.S.

“Terrorism is an attack on open societies, and addressing the threat posed by violence and hate is a critical challenge for us all,” he said. “Google and YouTube are committed to being part of the solution. We are working with government, law enforcement and civil society groups to tackle the problem of violent extremism online. There should be no place for terrorist content on our services.”

Countering extremist content

First, Google says that it will be using its extensive technologies to further identify extremist and terrorism-related videos. Walker points out that this step may be challenging since distinctions will have to be made between violent videos displayed by broadcast media and content uploaded by those glorifying the act. However, he says that Google is continuing to refine its machine learning systems to make the identification process faster.

Second, the company says that it will be nearly doubling the number of independent experts in YouTube’s Trusted Flagger program and increasing the number of operational grants it distributes to affiliated organizations. This, Walker says, will act as a check for some content that is more nuanced and not immediately picked up by the company’s algorithms.

Third, Google says it will be taking a tougher stance on videos that do not clearly violate its policies but still contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content. Walker says that these videos will now be accompanied by a warning and will not be eligible for monetization, recommended status, user comments, or endorsements. The hope is that the move will make the videos harder to find while not trampling on free expression.

Lastly, Google says that it will be increasing YouTube’s role in counter-radicalization efforts by expanding its “Redirect Method” program across Europe. Under the program, potential terrorist recruits will be targeted with online advertising that redirects them to anti-terrorist content that counters malicious recruiting messages and may sway them from joining. The company points out that past iterations of the program saw unusually high click rates, with over half a million minutes of content being watched.

Making a difference

Google believes these changes will make a tangible difference in the fight against terrorism and has pledged to keep working until it finds the right balance.

“Extremists and terrorists seek to attack and erode not just our security, but also our values; they very things that make our societies open and free. We must not let them,” Walker said.

“Together, we can build lasting solutions that address the threats to our security and our freedoms. It is a sweeping and complex challenge. We are committed to playing our part.”

In recent months, Google has taken several steps to clean up its algorithms and better serve its network of users by removing predatory payday loan ads and...

Google Home users report widespread problems with speaker device

Attempts to activate the device with voice commands fall on deaf electronic ears

Consumers who use Google Home turned out in droves over the weekend to report an issue with the devices’ voice command feature.

Comments on the Google Home Help Forum indicate that trying to activate the device with the “Ok, Google” prompt led to a dead end, with Google Home responding with messages like “Hmm, something went wrong. Try again in a few seconds,” or “There was a glitch, try again in a few seconds.”

Google officials say that they are aware of the issue and are trying to reproduce the error and find a fix for it. “We are actively investigating this matter and we greatly appreciate all the feedback and reports from everyone. Please bear with us while we continue to work on this,” said a Google Home team member on the forum thread.

According to a report from Android Police, the devices had a nearly 100% failure rate on Sunday, but issues first began rolling in as early as May 31. Interestingly, the issue seems to be confined to the Home speaker device, while other devices that have the Google Assistant app installed are unaffected. The fact that the company has been working on the issue for almost a week with no solution may raise a few eyebrows, but experts say it’s likely that the problem will be fixed soon.

Submitting feedback

However, to speed up the process, Google is asking consumers to keep trying to reproduce the issue and file feedback reports via the Google Home app. Depending on your device’s operating system, this can be done a couple of different ways.

For Android users:

  • Make sure your mobile device or tablet is connected to the same Wi-Fi as your Google Home device.
  • Open the Google Home app.
  • In the top left corner of the Home screen, tap “Menu,” then “Help & Feedback,” and then “Submit Feedback Report” at the bottom of the screen.
  • Tap the device you’d like to submit feedback for (Google Home).
  • In the “From:” section, tap the arrow on the right to display available emails and select your email address.
  • In the “Write your feedback” area, write your full email address and a brief description of your issue, including the keyword “GHT3 – Glitch/Something went wrong.”
  • Check the “Include screenshot and logs” box.
  • Tap the arrow icon on the top right corner to submit feedback.

For iOS users:

  • Make sure your mobile device or tablet is connected to the same Wi-Fi as your Google Home device.
  • Open the Google Home app.
  • In the top left corner of the Home screen, tap “Menu,” and then “Feedback.”
  • Tap the device you’d like to submit feedback for (Google Home).
  • In the feedback summary, write a brief description of your issue, including the keyword “GHT3 – Glitch/Something went wrong.”
  • Check the “Include system data” and “Include Google Account” boxes.
  • Tap “Preview” in the bottom right corner to review your feedback.
  • Tap “Send” in the bottom right corner to submit feedback.
Consumers who use Google Home turned out in droves over the weekend to report an issue with the devices’ voice command feature.Comments on the Google H...

Google plans expansion of its Waze ride-sharing service

The service differs in many ways from more conventional services like Uber and Lyft

Back in August, we reported that Google was staking its claim in the ride-sharing business. Using its Waze navigation app, the company began testing a “Going my way?” concept that allowed drivers to connect with travelers that were going in the same direction.

Initially, tests were confined to Israel and the San Francisco Bay area, but the Wall Street Journal reports that positive results have prompted Google to expand the program. Waze chief Noam Bardin announced that the company will be testing the service in several U.S. cities and in Latin America over the next several months.

Ride-sharing differences

The expansion is likely to put Google on a collision course with other popular ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. However, Waze’s service differs in several key ways.

For one, users must order their Waze rides hours in advance and there is no guarantee that a driver will accept. This is because the service asks drivers who use the navigation app to pick up travelers who are going in the same direction. Uber and Lyft, on the other hand, operate more of an on-demand service that users depend on to take them wherever they want to go on short notice.

As such, drivers will more than likely not be using Waze as their main source of income, as many Uber and Lyft drivers do now. Riders only pay drivers 54 cents per mile – the reimbursement rate for business travel according to the IRS – and Waze currently doesn’t take a cut of those earnings. However, that could change if the service finds success.

The main drawing point for riders will be the difference in price. A trip from downtown Oakland to downtown San Francisco cost a scant $4.50 for users of the Waze service, while Uber and Lyft’s cheapest rides cost $10.57 and $12.40, respectively. However, much of the service’s success will depend on driver cooperation.

“Can we get the average person on his way to work to pick someone up and drop them off once in a while? That’s the biggest challenge,” said Bardin.

Self-driving integration?

Google bought Waze for $1 billion back in 2013, but it has had its eyes on the self-driving market for some time. In the same year, it invested $258 million in Uber and placed one of its executives on the company’s board.

Over time, the companies parted ways due to competition, but the emergence of the Waze Carpool service may kick things into overdrive. As of right now, Google does enjoy some advantage because it doesn’t have to overcome some of the regulatory obstacles that other ride-sharing services have had to deal with. Bardin also notes the possibility of integrating self-driving technologies into the service in the future.

“If we were a startup, we couldn’t afford to take these sorts of long term bets. With Google, we can. . . And maybe at the end of the day, instead of a neighbor picking you up, a robot picks you up,” he quipped.

Back in August, we reported that Google was staking its claim in the ride-sharing business. Using its Waze navigation app, the company began testing a “Goi...

Report: Google eyes a Twitter acquisition

Google's attempts to build a social network of its own have never quite measured up

Legend has it that Twitter has for years been a twinkle in the eyes of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and now Bloomberg reports that Google parent Alphabet has hired Lazard Ltd. to evaluate a possible acquisition.

Lazard served as the financial adviser for Google’s $625 million takeover of software developer Apigee in September. The deal is expected to close by year’s end.

Rumors of a Google takeover of Twitter have been around since at least 2009. It's seen as a natural fit for both companies and for advertisers who already advertise on both sites to reach their target audiences.

For Google, Twitter would perhaps finally supply what Google has been unable to conjure up on its own -- a successful presence in the social space. Google+ never quite took off, and microblogging site Buzz faded quickly after its 2010 launch. Meanwhile, Twitter has continued to ramp up its user base despite problems figuring out how to majorly monetize it, so to speak.

What the benefits are for everyday consumers isn't quite as clear, but there's no immediately obvious downside.

There could be privacy implications if the sites' user lists were merged after an acquisition, but does anyone really expect privacy in a social network setting?

Legend has it that Twitter has for years been a twinkle in the eyes of Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and now Bloomberg reports that Google...

Google's self-driving car involved in accident

Another driver ran a red light and collided with the vehicle

Google is perhaps one of the biggest companies in support of getting self-driving cars on the road. Back in March, it asked Congress to allow federal regulators to override the wishes of states that rejected the new technology, and since then it has been testing and refining its own prototype.

Testing new technologies comes with risks, though, and the company's self-driving car recently hit a bump in the road. On Friday, reports surfaced that the vehicle had been involved in an accident in Mt. View, Calif. Another driver allegedly ran a red light and collided with Google’s vehicle.

The car was operating autonomously when the crash occurred, but a Google employee quickly took over control and applied the brakes as the other car entered the intersection. No one was hurt as a result of the incident.

“A Google vehicle was traveling northbound on Phyllis Ave. in Mountain View when a car heading westbound on El Camino Real ran a red light and collided with the right side of our vehicle. Our light was green for at least six seconds before our car entered the intersection. Thousands of crashes happen everyday on U.S. roads, and red-light running is the leading cause of urban crashes in the U.S. Human error plays a role in 94% of these crashes, which is why we’re developing fully self-driving technology to make our roads safer,” said Google in a statement.

Improving safety

The crash comes shortly after safety regulators released new guidelines for autonomous vehicles. The provisions are meant to shore up any laissez-faire approaches to creating self-driving cars so that they are safe before consumers can operate them on the open road.

Safety advocates were pleased with the change in policy, saying that the Department of Transportation’s focus on consumer safety was “long overdue.” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx reiterated in a statement that self-driving vehicles could save many lives..

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” he said.

Despite the recent accident, Google will surely continue to test its self-driving technologies going forward. The company releases reports on how far its vehicles have traveled and provides accident details at its “Google Self-Driving Car Project” page here.

Google is perhaps one of the biggest companies in support of getting self-driving cars on the road. Back in March, it asked Congress to allow federal regul...

Google's new messaging app, Allo, may be smarter than you are

It's not just a smarter Siri, Allo will actually do the thinking for you

Texting is oh so dull and drab and who has time for Facetime or Hangouts? That seems to be the thinking behind Google's latest messaging entry, dubbed Allo, an emoji-infested app powered by Google Assistant, which seems to be sort of a smarter Siri.

As far as we can tell, Allo sort of takes the thinking out of texting. "Google Allo can help you make plans, find information, and express yourself more easily in chat. And the more you use it, the more it improves over time,” according to Google.

To hear Google tell it, Allo is intended to be a market-entry strategy for Google Assistant. But marketers were quick to pick up on its potential for such ad-related features as recommendations, reviews, reservations, and so forth.

“You can easily move from discussing dinner with friends to making plans for the night, right in your chat. Just add the Assistant to your group chat and ask for movie times, local restaurants and more. You can also research travel destinations, flights and hotels together with friends,” as Google put it in a blog posting.

Why think?

Carried to its logical extension, Allo is like having a speechwriter and an appointments secretary right in your pocket. This is only logical; why should you have to wrack your brain when a friend asks what you want to do tonight? Now you can let Allo figure it out.

All of this might suggest that Allo does the thinking for those unable to do it for themselves, but a more generous view is that it frees us up to think great thoughts and ponder issues of global significance instead of obsessing over which Starbucks to go to.

For a more animated description, check out this video from Google:

Texting is oh so dull and drab and who has time for Facetime or Hangouts? That seems to be the thinking behind Google's latest messaging entry, dubbed Allo...

Google reveals new travel app called 'Google Trips'

The app allows users to organize travel information and create day plans on the fly

Travelers from around the world know what it feels like to be disoriented in a new city. All of the new sights, sounds, and people can be overwhelming, and if you don’t know where to go you may be in for a rough time.

For this reason, most consumers rely on their smartphones to get around in unfamiliar places. But what happens if the battery dies or you hit your data limit? Now, the new Google Trips app can come to your rescue.

Google Trips is an app that allows users to store all of their trip information in one place. Officials say that the app can help you successfully plan your trip day-by-day and take the hassle out of a visit or vacation.

“We wanted to reduce the hassle and help travelers enjoy their hard-earned vacations. So today, we’re introducing a new mobile app to help you instantly plan each day of your trip with just a few taps of your finger: Google Trips,” said the company in a blog post.

Planning your trip

The app provides categories that consumers can input information into, such as day plans, reservations, food and drink options, travel arrangements, and more. After filling in all of the pertinent information, consumers can then tap the “Download” button to save the trip to their device, allowing them to access it without needing to rely on WiFi or data.

For some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Google has provided some day plans so that travelers have an idea of where to visit. For example, those wishing to visit Florence, Italy may be given prompts to visit the Duomo, Uffizi museum, or even the Ponte Vecchio for some shopping.

For those working under strict time constraints, the app also gives the option to search for things to do in areas that you already know you want to visit. After clicking the “+” button in the day plans category, travelers will be provided with a list of attractions that they can see in any given area.

Users can also specify times for when they’re visiting, so someone who only has time in the morning or afternoon can input that information above the map and the app will generate a day plan for you. If they happen to find a new spot that they like or want to change plans, travelers can also tap the “magic wand” icon to have the app generate a new itinerary on the fly.

Organizing information

Google Trips isn’t just good for planning out your day, though. The app also allows users to store all the information they need on flights, car rentals, hotel and restaurant reservations, and more. The app collects all of the information by gathering it from a connected Gmail account and then organizes it by trip, so users won’t need to dig through their inbox to find what they need.

“Vacations are a chance to recharge and experience new places and cultures. For your next trip, let us help you see all the sights you want to see, without all the work,” concluded the company.

The app is available to download on both the iOS and Android platforms. 

Travelers from around the world know what it feels like to be disoriented in a new city. All of the new sights, sounds, and people can be overwhelming, and...

Google getting into ride-sharing with its Waze app

The new service is similar to, but cheaper than, Uber and Lyft

The roadway to success in the ride-app business is getting a little more congested. Google is reported to be expanding an experimental ride-sharing service it has been testing in the San Francisco area, posing a potential challenge to Uber and Lyft.

Google is using its Waze app to link up riders with drivers who are headed in the same direction -- sort of a "Going my way?" concept. Whereas Uber and Lyft are basically app-summoned taxis, Waze is trying to fill empty seats in commuters' cars, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Until now, the test has been restricted to employees of specific companies in the San Francisco region, but it will be opened to everyone in the Bay Area in September, reports say.

Waze is already well-established as the commuter's friend. It basically helps drivers avoid tie-ups and find alternative routes, using input from other users. Drivers like it, but some consumers are piqued by increased cut-through traffic on residential streets. 

Google is pricing its find-a-friend service below Uber and Lyft, at about 54 cents a mile. Google is not taking a cut of the proceeds during the shakedown period.

Peer-to-peer

In another departure from the Uber/Lyft approach, Google says it doesn't want drivers to think of themselves as professional drivers, but merely as commuters helping other commuters. Its 54 cents-per-mile price just so happens to be what the Internal Revenue Service defines as the allowable 2016 employee mileage reimbusement, so Google suggests drivers may not have to report their payments as taxable income but instead as reimbursement for gas and related expenses.

Cautionary note: check with your accountant before you try this.

The Waze experiment is unique to the U.S., but the model has been in use in Israel for the last year or so. Waze was developed in Israel and purchased by Google in 2013. 

In another departure from the Uber/Lyft model, Google will reportedly not be vetting its drivers, relying instead on reviews from consumers to weed out bad guys. Anyone with the Waze app can sign up to be a driver. 

The roadway to success in the ride-app business is getting a little more congested. Google is reported to be expanding an experimental ride-sharing service...

Google self-driving car gets pulled over for driving too slowly

Project members say that the prototypes cannot exceed 25 mph due to "safety reasons"

There has been a lot of press over the past year about the advent of self-driving cars. While many drivers feel uneasy about giving up control of their vehicles, companies like Google have been performing extensive tests on them to see if they would be viable in the near future. But when that day comes, consumers might hope that they're not as slow as the Google vehicle that was pulled over yesterday for traveling too far under the speed limit.

Dealing with slow drivers is a constant source of ire for drivers around the world, so you can imagine how some of them must have felt when they were stuck behind one of Google's self-driving prototypes in Mountain View, CA., yesterday. Police in the area noticed traffic backing up behind the vehicle and noted that it was going 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Luckily, these same police officers were tech savvy enough recognize that the vehicle was a self-driving model, despite the human safety driver who was in the car at the time. They pulled the vehicle over to alleviate traffic and reportedly “made contact with the operators to learn more about how the car was choosing speeds along certain roadways and to educate the operators about impeding traffic,” according to a police blog post.

Later, via its Google+ page, the team responsible for the car project explained that prototype cars are set not to exceed 25 mph due to “safety reasons.”

'We want them to feel friendly and approachable, rather than zooming scarily through neighborhood streets. . . Like this officer, people sometimes flag us down when they want to know more about our project. . . After 1.2 million miles of autonomous driving (that's the human equivalent of 90 years of driving experience), we're proud to say we've never been ticketed!,” said Google.

Regardless of its clean record, there will be many drivers on the road hoping that they aren't stuck behind one of these prototypes again.  

There has been a lot of press over the past year about the advent of self-driving cars. While many drivers feel uneasy about giving up control of their veh...

Alphabets wonder why Google chose to use their name

Is it really so hard to come up with something unique?

Back when Google was founded in 1998, its name was unique and clever. When it founded its parent corporation this week it named it Alphabet, which may or may not be clever but which is certainly far from unique.

In fact, there are companies named Alphabet that run the gamut from A to, well, maybe not quite Z but close. First of all, there's the Alphabet Corp. that is owned by BMW, an automotive fleet manager that operates in 18 countries and supplies 530,000 vehicles to its customers.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports there are no fewer than 103 registered trademarks containing the word "Alphabet" so it seems that, rather than breaking new ground as it once did, Google is taking the path more chosen.

Other Alphabets

Of course, none of the other Alphabets can come close to the power and glory of the Google Alphabet but quite a few of them seem to be well-established, going concerns.

There's Alphabet Acquisition Corp., founded in 1943. It operates a chain of radio stations around the country. There's the Alphabet line of furniture, which makes plastic form-fitting chairs.

There are Alphabet cooking sets that let you make letter-shaped cookies. AlphabetKids,runs lunch programs in Canadian schools.

In Warren, Ohio, there's an Alphabet Group that makes stainless steel assemblies and other industrial equipment.

Probably no one in Mountain View cares much about any of these small companies and feels no compunctions about riding roughshod over their hard-won identity.

While BMW might be a more formidable foe than AlphabetKids, it apparently doesn't feel proprietary about its name.

Trademark issues

A BMW spokesman told Reuters the automaker was "examining whether there are any implications over trademarks" but said there are currently no plans for legal action against Google or its parent, Alphabet.

Google has said it doesn't plan to use the Alphabet name on any of its products or services and will use it only as the name of its holding company.

While it's not likely any of the smaller Alphabets will want to pick a fight with Google, it's not hard to imagine that a few years down the road, Google starts insisting that it and only it owns the Alphabet name and begins sending long letters on fancy legal letterhead to the more insignificant Alphabets.

One might wonder why, since it is the self-appointed fount of the world's knowledge, Google didn't take the trouble to at least come up with a one-off name -- you know, something like "AlphaBit." Even Microsoft managed to jam two words together when it came up with its moniker.

An Alphabet brand chairBack when Google was founded in 1998, its name was unique and clever. When it founded its parent corporation this week it name...

Google gets a new parent

Don't worry, there'll still be plenty of search and Gmail ads to look at

As one observer put it, Google has birthed its parent company. Known as Alphabet, the parent company will do what parents have always done -- try to keep the brawling brood in line, encouraging the brighter bulbs and trying to keep the wastrels from bringing down the entire clan.

Google is the biggest and brawniest of the Alphabet family and does the down-and-dirty work -- search, email, thermostats -- that pay the bills. It may not be glamorous but it's what the first-born does: trudges to the office each day carrying on the family name.

The others? Well, who knows. Google over the years has tried all kinds of things. Some look promising, others not. The idea behind this reorganization is to run Google like a business while leaving company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin free to chase ideas without running up a big tab that draws down Google's earnings.

A to Z

Alphabet -- A to Z, get it? -- will have enough money to pursue big ideas but will not get its hand into the Google cookie jar more often than the parent dictates.

Google will have its own CEO -- Sundar Pichai -- whose task is to keep Google's nose to the grindstone, doing what it does best, which is selling advertising. He's been in charge of that part of the business for quite some time so keeping it stoked and steaming ahead should be no challenge. 

What this means for consumers is that Google should continue to innovate and grow its core businesses, producing even more targeted ads in even more places. Not that anyone was ever really afraid it would stop doing so.

Although everyone is too polite to say so, Google has now turned into something that's just a little bit boring -- it makes scads of money but at the end of the day, well, it's work. This is what happens to start-up companies that are truly lucky: they become so successful that their founders begin to get edgy and want to go try their hand at something else.

Midlife angst

This kind of midlife angst makes Wall Street nervous. It wants a steely-eyed businessman running the company day-to-day, crunching numbers, hitting financial goals and keeping everyone in line. 

Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Google started. It was so under-financed that it canceled its affiliate advertising deals with sites like this one because they were too expensive.

We emailed Google at the time and said we thought their new search engine was so valuable that we would run the ads for nothing. We never heard back though, so they must still be doing all right. 

As one observer put it, Google has birthed its parent company. Known as Alphabet, the parent company will do what parents have always done -- try to keep t...

Google resists broadening "right to be forgotten"

Advertisers group backs Google, privacy advocates not so much

Not surprisingly, Google is resisting a demand that it broaden the "right to be forgotten" by censoring search results worldwide, saying that allowing one country to censor the Web worldwide would start a "race to the bottom."

"We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access," global privacy counsel Peter Fleischer says on Google's blog.

Privacy advocates say that an individual's right to privacy is well-established principle in American law.

"In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place," Fleischer writes, noting that content that is legal in one country might be illegal in another. "Thailand criminalizes some speech that is critical of its King, Turkey criminalizes some speech that is critical of Ataturk, and Russia outlaws some speech that is deemed to be 'gay propaganda.'"

Google has been struggling with the European Union since last year's court ruling that search engines must allow Europeans to request removal of links about themselves. In June, France demanded that Google remove results from all of it results pages -- even in the U.S. -- rather than simply from results pages in Europe.

In the U.S., Consumer Watchdog, a California group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission saying that Google's refusal to let Americans ask it to remove information about themselves was "unfair and deceptive."

"No legal basis"

Today, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) came to Google's defense. In a letter to the FTC, the group said the "terms suggested in the complaint are extraordinarily broad, vague and elusive and would create dangerous precedents adversely impacting numerous other U.S. companies in addition to Google."

The advertisers group argued that there is,"absolutely no legal basis, and in fact, it would be unconstitutional to allow the U.S. government to compel companies to give to these types of demands."

“Allowing ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ policies to be enforced in the U.S. would cause serious and undue harm to the public’s right to determine for itself what is important and relevant information,” said Dan Jaffe, ANA’s Group Executive Vice President for Government Relations. “Such a rule would force American companies to edit the past under the supervision of federal regulators. Consumer Watchdog’s costly, onerous censorship proposal runs contrary to consumers’ interests, and is certainly not constitutional in the U.S.”

Cornerstone of privacy law

"There is a lot that is incorrect in the ANA statement," said,Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in an email to ConsumerAffairs, "But my favorite is this: 'Consumer Watchdog is clearly confusing the right to privacy with the right not to be embarrassed.'"

Said Rotenberg: "No, actually, Consumer Watchdog is describing the right to privacy set out by [former Supreme Court Justice] Louis Brandeis in the famous 1890 law review article. That right is, not surprisingly, the cornerstone of privacy law in the USA."

Rotenberg and other privacy advocates note that no one is suggesting newspapers should remove articles or not publish them in the first place.

"In Google v. Spain, the European Court of Justice ruled that the European citizens have a right to request that commercial search firms, such as Google, that gather personal information for profit should remove links to private information when asked, provided the information is no longer relevant. The Court did not say newspapers should remove articles," EPIC said in a recent posting on its website.

"The Court found that the fundamental right to privacy is greater than the economic interest of the commercial firm and, in some circumstances, the public interest in access to Information," EPIC said.

A recently leaked version of a Google transparency report found,that the vast majority of requests for delisting concern private matters of private individuals, EPIC said.

Not surprisingly, Google is resisting a demand that it broaden the "right to be forgotten" by censoring search results worldwide, saying that allowing one...

Google surrenders, won't require Google+ account anymore

Forcing Google+ sign-ups was part of an effort to overtake Facebook, Twitter

Google has conceded what everyone else already knew -- Google+ is sort of a big minus and is not going to knock Facebook and Twitter out of cyberspace. Google says it will no longer require users to have a Google+ account to interact with other users.

In a Google+ post, Google+ manager Brad Horowitz announced that Google will "retire [Google+] as the mechanism by which people share and engage within other Google products." Instead, users will need only a Google email or other type of account.

When it launched "+" -- as it may affectionately be known somewhere in the universe -- four years ago, Google's hope was that it would grow into a huge social network with a billion users. While it had its pluses, including the ability to break groups into categories such as "friend," "family" and "colleague," + actually grew into a big source of frustration for many users.

"Why the f---?"

YouTubers, in particular, were miffed that after years of commenting loudly and vociferously they suddenly needed to sign up for a + account, the most famous outburst coming from YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, who asked "Why the f— do I need a google+ account to comment on a video?”

As Horowitz tells it, the goal was to establish a "platform layer" that would tie all of Big G's services together. But many users saw it as a way for Google to muscle into social media by forcing its users to sign up for G+ whether they wanted to or not. Some critics went so far as to label it downright Microsoftian.

Horowitz says the company meant well.

“This was a well-intentioned goal, but as realized it led to some product experiences that users sometimes found confusing,” he wrote.

Horowitz said Google is rolling out the policy change "as fast as possible," starting with YouTube.

"What does this mean for Google+ the product?" he asked rhetorically, replying: "Relieved of the notion of integrating with every other product at Google, Google+ can now focus on doing what it’s already doing quite well: helping millions of users around the world connect around the interest they love."

Horowitz said it's been "incredibly gratifying" to see how well the change has been received.

,

Google has conceded what everyone else already knew -- Google+ is sort of a big minus and is not going to knock Facebook and Twitter out of cyberspace. Goo...

Self-driving Google car gets rear-ended; minor injuries reported

It took Google 16 days to get around to mentioning it

Google may be applying the "right to be forgotten" to its own activities. The company revealed in a blog post yesterday that one of its self-driving cars was rear-ended in an accident that sent three employees and the driver of the other car to the hospital for check-ups.

The accident happened July 1 and Google gave no reason why it took 16 days for it to get around to mentioning it.

Of course, one could argue that Google is not obligated to reveal details of its internal operations, but since it is using public roads for its experimental commutes and trying to persuade regulators and the public that autonomous cars will be safe, cover-ups aren't exactly helpful.

The accident happened with one of Google's Lexus RX450h prototypes was rear-ended by another car in Mountain View, Calif., where Google autonomous cars ply the streets regularly.

The Googlemobile had a green light but the cars in front of it had slowed down to avoid getting stuck in the intersection in an upcoming light change, according to a blog account by Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving project. 

Whiplash

The three Google employees in the car and the long occupant of the car that plowed into it all complained about neck pain and were checked out and then released from a local hospital.

Google says it's the first injury accident in a self-driving car. It's the 14th accident overall involving Google's fleet of self-driving cars. In 11 of those incidents, the Google car was rear-ended.

Google displayed its usual self-assurance in describing the incident.

"Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road," wrote Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project, in the blog post. "The clear theme is human error and inattention" in those incidents.

Proponents of self-driving cars, as well as some scientists, say there will likely be fewer accidents when computers replace humans at the controls. We'll see.

Google may be applying the "right to be forgotten" to its own activities. The company revealed in a blog post yesterday that one of its self-driving cars w...

Google accidentally releases European “right to be forgotten” data

Most takedown requests involve personal information; almost half have been honored

Google accidentally revealed more than it intended to in its latest transparency report. The Guardian reported today that it discovered “new data hidden in source code on Google’s own transparency report that indicates the scale and flavour of the types of requests being dealt with by Google – information it has always refused to make public. The data covers more than three-quarters of all requests to date.”

Those “requests” the Guardian mentioned are link-takedown requests invoking the so-called “right to be forgotten,” a legal [privilege and/or burden, depending who you ask] covering people and organizations in the European Union, but not in the United States (though some U.S.-based consumer groups would like to see that change).

Origins of "right to be forgotten"

The European “right to be forgotten” dates back to May 2014, when the E.U. Court of Justice ruled that Google and other search engines are, in at least some circumstances, legally obligated to stop linking to old news stories about various people — true and accurate news stories about people — if the people in question request it.

The original case was brought by a Spanish national, Mario Costeja González, whose house was auctioned off for unpaid taxes back in 1998. A Spanish newspaper printed legal notices about the proceedings — standard operating procedure for a local paper, in Spain or in America — and then in 2009, Costeja asked the newspaper to remove the stories from their online archives and also asked Google to stop linking to the stories, on the grounds that those 11-year-old news pieces about his debts were no longer relevant, since the debts in question had been settled.

Google and the newspaper refused, so Costeja sued them both. The court sided with the newspaper – so it is not required to remove the stories from its website. But the court also sided against Google – the stories can stay online, but Google has to stop linking to them when people search for the name “Mario Costeja González.” Specifically, Google and other search engines must honor certain takedown requests which involve “irrelevant and outdated” search results.

Data leak

As soon as the European court announced its decision, Google was inundated with takedown requests. Within two days of the court ruling, the BBC mentioned three of them: a politician running for re-election asked Google to stop linking to old news stories about his behavior while in office, a pedophile wanted Google to stop linking to news articles about his previous criminal conviction for possession of child pornography, and a doctor wanted to take down links to negative reviews written by his patients.

But that was only during the first two days of Europe's “right to be forgotten.” That right is now 14 months old and, according to the Guardian, “Less than 5% of nearly 220,000 individual requests made to Google to selectively remove links to online information concern criminals, politicians and high-profile public figures … with more than 95% of requests coming from everyday members of the public.”

Not that you'll find this statistic in the transparency report itself. The Guardian figured it out by analyzing previously archived versions of older transparency reports. The data “details the numeric breakdown of each request and associated link by country and issue type. The underlying source code has since been updated to remove these details.”

Largely private and personal information

Information about specific takedown requests doesn't seem to be available, but the Guardian said that “Of 218,320 requests to remove links between 29 May 2014 and 23 March 2015, 101,461 (46%) have been successfully delisted on individual name searches. Of these, 99,569 involve 'private or personal information'.”

Although some consumer or privacy groups want Google to honor a similar “right to be forgotten” in America – and even asked the Federal Trade Commission to require it – it's not certain whether such a law would even be constitutional. Unlike Europeans, Americans have First Amendment guarantees to free speech and a free press, which sometimes means that laws allowable in the E.U. wouldn't pass constitutional muster in the United States (and, conversely, that certain U.S. laws and practices violate privacy laws in the E.U.).

For example: in Europe, you won't find many websites like ConsumerAffairs or Yelp, for the simple reason that businesses can bring libel charges against anyone who speaks ill of them and have a reasonable certainty of winning, even if the criticism is accurate. (And now, even if websites like ConsumerAffairs did operate in Europe, it might be illegal for Google to link to our stories anyway.)

That said, European supporters of the “right to be forgotten” will likely view the accidental Google data dump as evidence favoring their cause. The Guardian quoted Dr. Paul Bernal, a lecturer in technology and media law at the University of East Anglia, as saying that the data suggests the right to be forgotten is a legitimate law (in the United Kingdom): “If most of the requests are private and personal ones, then it’s a good law for the individuals concerned. It seems there is a need for this – and people go for it for genuine reasons.”

Google accidentally revealed more than it intended to in its latest transparency report. The Guardian reported today that it discovered “new data hidden in...

Privacy group asks FTC to bring Europe's “Right to be Forgotten” to the U.S.

Consumer Watchdog complains over Google's different policies in E.U. and U.S.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying that Google's failure to offer U.S. users the same “right to be forgotten” enjoyed by citizens of the European Union is “unfair and deceptive.”

John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, wrote that “Google’s refusal to consider such requests in the United States is both unfair and deceptive, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

European "Right to be Forgotten"

Europe's “Right to be Forgotten” dates back to a May 2014 ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (the E.U.'s equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, more or less). That ruling regarded a case brought before the court in 2010, by a Spanish national named Mario Costeja González. But the start of Costeja's complaint dates back to 1998, when some of his property was auctioned off to pay back taxes. 

In Spain as in America, property auctions for tax settlements are public information and thus count as legitimate news, so the Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia published legal notices of the proceedings in January and March 1998.

In 2009, those 11-year-old notices still turned up in Google searches for Costeja's name, so Costeja asked La Vanguardia to take the stories down and also asked Google to stop linking to them, on the grounds that old stories about his debt issues were no longer relevant since his debts had been resolved.

Google and the newspaper both refused Costeja's request, so in 2009 he took his complaints to the Spanish Data Protection Agency which, in July 2010, ordered Google to remove the links but did not order La Vanguardia to remove the stories.

Google challenged the order, the E.U. Court of Justice agreed to hear the appeal, and in May 2014 it ruled against Google. The E.U. “right to be forgotten” essentially says that, while information does not have to be deleted from the Internet (meaning: websites like La Vanguardia can keep their archives online), search engines might have to obey requests to take down links to certain stories.

Court of Justice rulings are legally binding throughout the European Union just as Supreme Court rulings are legally binding throughout the U.S., so Google has obeyed European law while conducting operations in Europe, and U.S. law for its business in the United States.

Seeking similar treatment in U.S.

But Consumer Watchdog's complaint to the FTC (which is available as a .pdf here) criticizes Google for not honoring E.U.-style takedown requests in the United States, specifically:

…. Google’s failure to offer U.S. users the ability to request the removal of search engine links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive. In Europe the ability to make this request is popularly referred to as the Right To Be Forgotten. As [FTC] Commissioner Brill has suggested it may more accurately be described as the Right Of Relevancy or the Right To Preserve Obscurity.

Consumer Watchdog went on to explain why the “right of relevancy” is a necessary consumer-privacy protection:

Before the Internet if someone did something foolish when they were young – and most of us probably did – there might well be a public record of what happened. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things someone did in their youth. They would be judged mostly based on their current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant. If someone else were highly motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up a person’s past. Usually this required effort and motivation. For a reporter, for instance, this sort of deep digging was routine with, say, candidates for public office, not for Joe Blow citizen. This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity. The Digital Age has ended that. Everything – all our digital footprints – are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.

However, the letter goes on to point out that U.S. law already recognizes a “right of relevancy” in certain cases, such as credit reports – the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that information about debt collections, civil lawsuits, tax liens, and similar matters becomes “obsolete” after a certain period of time (usually seven years) and must henceforth be removed from consumers' credit reports.

"Right to be Forgotten" could be useful

Consumer Watchdog offered examples of cases where a “right to be forgotten” might prove useful, including:

A guidance counselor was fired in 2012 after modeling photos from 20 years prior surfaced. She was a lingerie model between the ages of 18-20, and she had disclosed her prior career when she first was hired. Despite this, when a photo was found online and shown to the principal of her school, she was fired.

Arguably, in cases such as that – the counselor openly admitted her previous career when she was hired, which clearly caused no problems until the principal took umbrage at a photograph from half a lifetime before – what the woman needed wasn't a “right to be forgotten” so much as “protection from a hypocritical employer.”

But Consumer Watchdog also offered examples of European link-removal requests, those honored by Google under the “right to be forgotten” and also those requests Google did not honor: “A woman in Italy requested that Google remove a decades-old article about her husband’s murder, which included her name. The page was removed from search results for her name.  A Swiss financial professional asked Google to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. Google did not remove the pages from search results.”

Last month, Google did implement a policy change in the United States, specifically to crack down on the practice of “revenge porn” — the practice wherein people (usually angry ex-lovers) post identifiable nude or sexually explicit photos of their partners, along with the partners' names, links to their social media accounts and other identifying information, with the intention of humiliating them and/or damaging their careers.

On June 19, Google said that henceforth, the company would honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” images from its search engine, and stop linking to the results. Consumer Watchdog mentioned this in its complaint to the FTC, and said “Google's approach to removals in the United States underscores the unfairness of offering the Right To Be Forgotten to Europeans, but not to Americans. As clearly demonstrated by its willingness to remove links to certain information when requested in the United States, Google could easily offer the Right To Be Forgotten or Right to Relevancy request option to Americans. It unfairly and deceptively opts not to do so. … Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request and have it honored.”

Legal differences between continents

Of course, Americans (unlike Europeans) have First Amendment guarantees of free press and free speech, which sometimes means that laws allowable in the E.U. wouldn't pass constitutional muster in the United States (and, conversely, that certain U.S. laws might fall short of privacy protections in the E.U.).

For example: in Europe, you won't find many websites like ConsumerAffairs or Yelp, for the simple reason that businesses can bring libel charges against anyone who speaks ill of them and have a reasonable certainty of winning, even if the criticism is accurate.

It is true, as Consumer Watchdog pointed out, that the so-called “right to relevancy” exists regarding some forms of personal information: you generally aren't expected to repay a credit card debt if it's more than seven years old, for example, and even a declaration of bankruptcy will eventually drop off your credit report so that you'll once again be able to apply for fresh lines of credit.

But should individuals be required to “forget” these things about other individuals, too? Here's an example Consumer Watchdog did not include in its complaint to the FTC: in 1998, a man named Mario Costeja González (remember him?) fell so far behind on his taxes, the authorities ended up auctioning off some of his real estate holdings to settle the debt — and now the European courts agree he has the right to expect everyone else to forget about it.

If Costeja does business in the United States, he already has that right, at least in financial matters — a debt resolved in 1998 would've dropped off his credit report seven years later, and wouldn't affect his ability to get a mortgage or other loan in mid-2015.

Now suppose that after getting that loan, he celebrates and drinks excessively at a nearby bar where he meets an attractive single woman (or man, if that is his preference). They get to talking and decide to start dating. Things start getting serious and at some point she types his name into a search engine because that's what people do nowadays when dating someone new.

Love alone is not enough to make a happy marriage: you also must share compatible values, especially in financial matters. So, if a woman who is very prudent and careful with money starts dating a man who, as an adult, once let his affairs get in such disarray that the authorities auctioned off his property to settle tax debts, whose rights take precedence here – the man's presumed right for everyone to forget how irresponsible he once was, or the woman's presumed right to get an accurate answer to such questions as “Has my potential partner ever been spendthrifty enough to make headlines?”

In the European Union, the man's rights take precedence here. Under current U.S. law, it's the reverse. Whether that status quo needs changing, and by how much, is shaping up to be the next big privacy-rights battleground in America.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying that Google's failure to offer U.S. users the same “...

New research study says Google harms consumers by manipulating search results

Evidence suggests Google promotes its own content over rivals' to apparent detriment of users

A research paper published today claims that Google manipulates search results to promote its own content over that of its competitors, which “yields serious concerns if the internal content is inferior to organic search results.”

Worse yet, the study found Google-produced content does appear inferior to organic search results. Users who took part in a “randomized controlled trial” searching for various local businesses were 45% more likely to “engage with universal search results … when the results are organically determined.”

The paper, titled “Is Google Degrading Search? Consumer Harm from Universal Search” was co-authored by legal scholar and former Federal Trade Commission adviser Tim Wu, Harvard Business School economist Michael Luca, and a team of researchers from Yelp, which bankrolled the study. Last weekend, Yelp presented the study to the Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, hosted at Oxford University in the U.K.

Multiple accusations

This is not the first time Google has been accused of manipulating search results for its own benefit — although the company has successfully beaten such accusations before. In January 2013, the FTC completed what was then a 19-month-long study into Google's practices, and concluded that the “facts just weren't there” to support charges of biased search results.

At least, that's what the FTC publicly proclaimed at the time. Yet in March 2015, the Wall Street Journal acquired and published some internal FTC documents which claimed the opposite. The FTC staff members who investigated Google's practices a few years ago recommended at the time that the agency sue the company on anti-competitive grounds over its allegedly biased search-engine results, yet the FTC publicly voted to do the exact opposite. (The FTC denied these allegations in a press release.)

In 2012, the FTC started investigating Google and concluded that the company's search engine results “boosted its own shopping, travel and local business services” while intentionally giving lower search rankings to rival products, according to the FTC staff report acquired by the Journal — and then the FTC publicly made the opposite announcement the following January.

Not presenting its best product

At the time, Tim Wu believed the FTC's public announcement, going so far as to write a column in the New Republic asking “Why does everyone think Google beat the FTC?” and lamenting how “too many reporters fell for the line that Google used some fancy combination of executive charm and lobbying prowess to beat the federal government at its own game. You'd easily believe, from reading what has become the conventional wisdom, that Google managed to avoid any sanctions by meeting with John Kerry or paying off think tanks.”

That's what Tim Wu wrote two and a half years ago. What happened since then to make him change his mind?

“When the facts change, your thinking should change,” Wu said to Re/code. “The main surprising and shocking realization is that Google is not presenting its best product. In fact, it’s presenting a version of the product that’s degraded and intentionally worse for consumers.”

Wu admits that Yelp paid the cost of the study, saying, “They are paying me for my time. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think this new evidence was a game-changer.”

A research paper published today claims that Google manipulates search results to promote its own content over that of its competitors, which “yields serio...

Self-driving cars nearly drive themselves into each other

Near-miss in California raises questions about autonomous cars

Humans aren't very good drivers but maybe computers won't be much better. Everyone's been assuring us that autonomous cars like those being designed by Google will be oh so much better than the ones with a breathing carbon unit behind the wheel.

But on San Antonio Road in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, a self-driving Audi Q5 being developed by Delphi Automotive was motoring along minding its own business Tuesday when a Google-driven Lexus SUV cut it off.

Delphi's software does not yet include such responses as laying on the horn and extending a certain digit out the window but fortunately, one of those soon-to-be-obsolete humans was on board and was able to take the wheel and avoid a fender bender, or worse, according to Reuters as interpreted by Business Insider, the Washington Post and others. 

(Fewer and fewer events are witnessed by human reporters these days but thanks to Google, we're better than ever at looking over each other's shoulder. When a tree falls in the forest, we may not be there to hear it but we will quickly report others' accounts.)

There have been several -- at least 11 -- fender benders on California streets since self-driving cars became sort of legal there. In each case, Google and the DMV have said, the self-driving car wasn't at fault, although consumer groups have insisted Google needs to release more information about those accidents. 

But what happens when two self-driving cars collide? Will it bring new meaning to the phrase "no-fault?" That hasn't happened yet, although Tuesday's incident suggests it won't be long now.

Humans aren't very good drivers but maybe computers won't be much better. Everyone's been assuring us that autonomous cars like those being designed by Goo...

Google changes search policy to crack down on revenge porn

Google promises to honor takedown requests from revenge porn victims

Google has announced a policy change to crack down on “revenge porn” -- henceforth, the company will honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” images from its search engine, and will stop linking to the results.

Google senior vice-president Amit Singhal explained the rationale in a post on the company's public policy blog Friday:

Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web. But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.

Nasty trend

Revenge porn is arguably one of the nastier online trends of the past few years. As the name (and Singhal's wording) suggests, it's a practice wherein people, usually angry ex-lovers, post identifiable nude or sexually explicit photos of their partners, along with the partners' names and other identifying information, with the intention of humiliating them and/or damaging their careers.

Online advocacy groups such as “End Revenge Porn” share horrifying real-life stories from revenge-porn victims.

Google's announcement makes it the latest major tech or social media company this year to announce a policy crackdown on revenge porn. Reddit and Twitter announced policy changes in February and March, respectively; Twitter's stated “content boundaries” now include the clause “You may not post intimate photos or videos that were taken or distributed without the subject's consent.”

A few days after Twitter announced this change, Facebook also updated its policies to disallow revenge porn; although it was already disallowed under Facebook's previous no-nudity policies, Facebook later updated its policies specifically to forbid “images shared in revenge or without permissions from the people in the images.”

Google has announced a policy change to crack down on “revenge porn” -- henceforth, the company will honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” i...

Google says its driverless cars are ready to hit the road in California

The company has not yet applied for the permit the cars will need, however

Google says its fully autonomous pod-shaped cars are ready to roll but the company has not yet applied for the permit it will need to hit the road in California.

Google has been testing Lexus SUVs retrofitted with its self-driving software and hardware for quite some time but it is now itching to take its fully autonomous prototypes out for a ride.

What's the difference? Well, besides being a lot smaller than an SUV, the Google pod cars have no steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator. They are inended to be just what the name implies -- fully autonomous, leaving the "driver" with nothing to do but sit there.

That, after all, is the whole idea -- creating a car that is basically a personal transport pod, according to a blog post by Chris Urmson, director of the project.

"When we started designing the world’s first fully self-driving vehicle, our goal was a vehicle that could shoulder the entire burden of driving. Vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button could transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error, reclaiming the billions of hours wasted in traffic, or bringing everyday destinations and new opportunities within reach of those who might otherwise be excluded by their inability to drive a car," Urmson said.

25 mph

The pod cars will be scooting around Google's hometown of Mountain View, Calif., collecting real-world experience that can be used to refine the process and iron out any kinks.

Urmson said speeds will be capped at 25 miles per hour and drivers will be on board with removable steering wheels, brake pedals and accelerators so they can take control of the car if needed.

He noted that the Lexus vehicles have been logging 10,000 miles per week and, although they've been involved in three fender-benders, all the accidents were minor and were the fault of the other car's driver. 

Not everyone is happy with that explanation.

“It is important that the public know what happened,” wrote John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog in a letter to Google.  “You are testing driverless vehicles on public highways, quite possibly putting other drivers at risk.” 

Simpson said Google should release all of the data it has on the accidents, however minor.

California enacted legislation in September that allows autonomous cars on its streets and highways, although each model must be tested and granted a permit. So far, Google hasn't applied for that permit, Automotive News reported.

Google says its fully autonomous pod-shaped cars are ready to roll but the company has not yet applied for the permit it will need to hi...

Google defends its self-driving cars' accident rate

In most of the incidents, the Google car was rear-ended, the company says

Google, founded on Sept. 4, 1998, will be turning 17 in a few months and, like many teens, it's eager to get out on the open road after a few years of puttering around town with driving instructors and anxious parents looking over its shoulder.

Critics have been questioning whether Google's self-driving cars are safe and Google, like many an adolescent driver before it, is arguing that a few dings here and there don't really amount to much and says it's getting better with experience.

The Associated Press reported recently that three of Google's self-driving cars have been involved in accidents since September, when California allowed them to begin using public roards. Google doesn't deny that but says its cars have logged 1.7 million miles since 2009, more than twice the 700,000 the AP reported. They've also been involved in 11 minor accidents, according to Google, not just three.

Driving record

Chris Urmson, the head of Google's self-driving initiative, says 11 accidents in 1.7 million miles is a lot better record than most humans achieve.

Also chiming in is Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit organization that is calling on Google to release all of the data it has on the accidents.

“It is important that the public know what happened,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a letter to Google.  “You are testing driverless vehicles on public highways, quite possibly putting other drivers at risk.” 

But Urmson says Google's cars are much safer than those driven by humans.

"If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," Urmson wrote in a blog posting on Medium. 

Urmson said that in most of the accidents, there was nothing Google's driver -- human or otherwise -- could have done to avoid being hit.

"Rear-end crashes are the most frequent accidents in America, and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway," he said. "We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. ... We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.

Simpson said Google should make all of the accident reports public.

“Rather than hide behind the cloak of DMV confidentiality, Google should disclose the accident report and the full details of the incident.  We also call on you to commit to making all future accident reports public,” he said in a letter to Google executives.

A Google self-driving Lexus (Photo credit: Google) Google, founded on Sept. 4, 1998, will be turning 17 in a few months and, like many teens, it's eag...

Easy exploit lets hackers bypass Google's new Password Alert

If you use Password Alert, make sure you immediately apply these new updates

Well, that didn't take long: earlier this week, Google introduced a new anti-phishing tool called Password Alert to its Chrome browsers. Password Alert would show you a warning if you type your Google password into a site that isn't a Google sign-in page.

So if, for example, a scammer sent you an email purportedly (but not really) from Google, claiming there's some problem with your Google account so you should click the link in this-here email to log in and type your password when asked – Password Alert would send you a warning notice advising you to reset your password since it had just been typed into a non-Google page.

But it took less than 24 hours for security researchers to discover a workaround which ArsTechnica called a “drop-dead simple exploit that nukes Google's password alert.”

White-hat hacking

Paul Moore, an information security consultant with the UK-based Urity Group, developed a simple proof-of-concept exploit, shown here,which looks convincingly similar to a genuine Google login page even though it's completely fake, with no connection to Google at all — yet if you're in Chrome and type your password into it (don't try this yourself), you won't see Google's Password Alert warning because the program will suppress it.

A proof of concept (or PoC) exploit is an example of white-hat hacking (or “good guy” hacking). PC Mag's encyclopedia defines a PoC exploit as: “An attack against a computer or network that is performed only to prove that it can be done. It generally does not cause any harm, but shows how a hacker can take advantage of a vulnerability in the software or possibly the hardware.”

To its credit, Google swiftly responded to news of Moore's PoC exploit with an update to patch it. Yesterday, a Google engineer took to Twitter to say that Password Alert has been updated to version 1.4, in order to prevent Moore's PoC exploit from working:

It's now fixed in 1.4. To update quickly, go to chrome://extensions/ , enable developer mode, click update extensions now.

Well, that didn't take long: earlier this week, Google introduced a new anti-phishing tool called Password Alert to its Chrome browsers. Password Alert wou...

Google introduces anti-phishing tool for Chrome browser

Password Alert can warn you when a bogus site tries to get your password

Google has introduced a new security tool for the Chrome browser that's intended to help keep consumers safe from phishing attacks. Those are the scams that use what look legitimate pages (like the one above) to trick consumers into revealing their passwords.

Phishing attacks are not only very common, they're also very effective. Google says they succeed nearly 45 percent of the time and reports that nearly 2% of emails submitted to Gmail are designed to smoke out consumers' passwords.

Called Password Alert, the free, open-source Chrome extension will show you a warning if you type your Google password into a site that isn’t a Google sign-in page. 

"Once you’ve installed and initialized Password Alert, Chrome will remember a 'scrambled' version of your Google Account password. It only remembers this information for security purposes and doesn’t share it with anyone," Google's Drew Hintz and Justin Kosslyn said in a blog posting.

They said that if you type your password into a site that isn't a Google sign-in page, Password Alert will show you a notice like the one below, alerting you that you’re at risk of being phished so you can update your password and protect yourself.

The app is available in the Google Play store.

Google has introduced a new security tool for the Chrome browser that's intended to help keep consumers safe from phishing attacks. Those are the scams tha...

Report: 2012 FTC investigators wanted to sue Google for antitrust violations

Yet the FTC publicly announced the exact opposite conclusion.

The Wall Street Journal has acquired and released internal Federal Trade Commission documents that raise some interesting questions about the FTC's official handling of an antitrust investigation into Google's practices.

Specifically, FTC staff members investigating Google's practices a few years ago recommended at the time that the agency sue the company on anti-competitive grounds over its allegedly biased search-engine results, yet the FTC publicly voted to do the exact opposite.

In 2012, the FTC started investigating Google and concluded that the company's search engine results “boosted its own shopping, travel and local business services” while intentionally giving lower search rankings to rival products, according to the FTC staff report acquired by the Journal.

But that's not what the American public initially heard. In January 2013, the FTC publicly announced that, after 19 months of investigation into Google, the “facts just weren't there” to support charges of biased search results. At a press conference, the then-current chairman Jon Leibowitz said that the FTC's bipartisan commission voted 5-0 that Google's search results were not biased to favor its own products over its competitors'.

Not everyone convinced

Not that everyone back then was convinced by the FTC's reassurances. The California-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog group, for example, responded to the FTC's January 2013 announcement by saying that “Google clearly skews search results to favor its own products and services while portraying the results as unbiased. That undermines competition and hurts consumers.... The FTC rolled over for Google.”

The following December, Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the FTC alleging deception in Google Shopping results. “The way that the Internet giant is featuring results from Google Shopping without making it clear that the highlighted results are nothing more than advertisements for merchants who bid for placement is an unfair and deceptive act …. Moreover, consumers are actually being harmed because the featured results from Google Shopping more often than not return higher prices than can be found elsewhere, when consumers would reasonably expect Google’s suggestions to be the best,” CW's Privacy Project Director said at the time.

This week's revelations suggest that the FTC itself agreed with such criticisms all along, despite publicly claiming otherwise.

The FTC has not commented about the report, but Google's general counsel, Kent Walker, said in a statement that, “After an exhaustive 19-month review, covering nine million pages of documents and many hours of testimony, the FTC staff and all five FTC Commissioners agreed that there was no need to take action on how we rank and display search results. Speculation about potential consumer and competitor harm turned out to be entirely wrong.”

Furthermore, said Walker on behalf of Google, “since the investigation closed two years ago, the ways people access information online have increased dramatically, giving consumers more choice than ever before. And our competitors are in fact thriving. For example, Yelp calls itself the ‘de facto local search engine’ and has seen revenue growth of over 350% in the last four years, TripAdvisor claims to be the web’s 'largest travel brand' and has nearly doubled its revenues in the last 4 years.”

The Wall Street Journal has acquired and released internal Federal Trade Commission documents that raise some interesting questions about the FTC's officia...

Google backs down; says it won't ban adult-content blogs after all

Censorship plan abandoned after three days

Earlier this week, Google inspired an uproar when it announced a stunning change in its longstanding policy toward bloggers: starting next month, it would ban anyone on Blogger or Blogspot websites from being “able to publicly share images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity,” according to a Feb. 24 announcement Google posted on its support forum:

Starting March 23, 2015, you won't be able to publicly share images and video that are sexually explicit or show graphic nudity on Blogger.
Note: We’ll still allow nudity if the content offers a substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts.

At best, Google said, such content would have been made “private,” which means that the only people able to see the blog would be the blog's own administrators, plus those individuals with personal invitations from the blog owner. At worst, Google might delete the content, or disable access to the author's Google and/or Blogger accounts: a longstanding blog over a decade old could suddenly vanish along with all of its content.

At the same time it made the announcement, Google reminded everyone on Blogger and Blogspot that if they didn't like the upcoming policy change, this Google support page explained how to save your blog content as an .xml file, then move the entire blog onto a different platform with more liberal policies (such as WordPress or Tumblr).

Another course change

Today, three days after announcing this abrupt policy change, Google changed course again and rescinded its intended ban. Jessica Pelegio, a Social Product Support Manager at Google, posted this announcement on Google's user forums:

Hello everyone, 

This week, we announced a change to Blogger’s porn policy. We’ve had a ton of feedback, in particular about the introduction of a retroactive change (some people have had accounts for 10+ years), but also about the negative impact on individuals who post sexually explicit content to express their identities. So rather than implement this change, we’ve decided to step up enforcement around our existing policy prohibiting commercial porn.  

Blog owners should continue to mark any blogs containing sexually explicit content as “adult” so that they can be placed behind an “adult content” warning page.

Bloggers whose content is consistent with this and other policies do not need to make any changes to their blogs.

Thank you for your continued feedback.  

The Blogger Team

Google also changed some of the language in its online “Blogger Content Policy”; as of Feb. 27 it says this:

Adult Content: We do allow adult content on Blogger, including images or videos that contain nudity or sexual activity. If your blog contains adult content, please mark it as 'adult' in your Blogger settings. We may also mark blogs with adult content where the owners have not. All blogs marked as 'adult' will be placed behind an 'adult content' warning interstitial. If your blog has a warning interstitial, please do not attempt to circumvent or disable the interstitial - it is for everyone’s protection.

Earlier this week, Google inspired an uproar when it announced a stunning change in its longstanding policy toward bloggers: starting next month, it would ...

Uber & Google headed for road rage?

Google is said to be thinking of launching its own ride-hailing service

Google is starting to have the kind of problem that comes with phenomenal success: It's getting so big it is running out of competitors, forcing it to compete with itself.

Sound crazy? Consider this: Uber has built a big business using Google's money and Google's map software. Now it's reported that Google may be going into competition with Uber, possibly launching its own virtual taxi service, even though it owns a big chunk of Uber.

Back when Uber was just getting started, Google Ventures -- the company's venture capital arm -- invested $258 million in the brazen start-up, which uses its own software combined with Google Maps to send cars anywhere and everywhere.

Everyone expected that Google would take Uber under its wing and the companies would work closely together, especially as Google developed its self-driving cars that would fit perfectly into Uber's business, leaving Uber's drivers as road kill.

Collision course

But now, according to a Bloomberg report, the companies may instead be on the path towards being ferocious competitors.  A Google executive who sits on Uber's board has reportedly informed Uber that Google is developing its own ride-hailing service. And Uber executives have reportedly seen screenshots of Google's ride-sharing app.

Google would indeed be a formidable competitor. It now only has money, scale and technological prowess, it also has -- through Google Maps -- access to just about everything there is to know about Uber's operations. 

Uber has also made few friends and lots of enemies in its short time on the scene, basically invading cities and operating however it pleases, daring regulators to do something about it.

It has lately been cleaning up its act but its pugnacious behavior leaves a big opening for a competitor offering a more genteel approach.

Neither company is commenting on the report.

Google is starting to have the kind of problem that comes with phenomenal success: It's getting so big it is running out of competitors, forcing it to comp...

Google halts sales of Google Glass ... for now

Glass 2.0 will be developed outside the limelight

Google is halting sales of its controversial Google Glass, saying it wants to develop the next version outside the harsh glare of publicity. The first version of the wearable, voice-activated device was slammed by privacy advocates.

Consumer Watchdog -- a California non-profit -- said Google should not offer a new version until the privacy issues are resolved.

“Google Glass may have appealed to a bunch of socially clueless ‘Glassholes’ who were oblivious to our privacy rights, but the device fulfilled no real consumer need,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “I’m only surprised it took them so long to kill the program as we know it.”

Last April, the group issued a report that found Glass inappropriate for the broad consumer market and urged consumers not to buy the device. 

By withdrawing the product from public view while it undergoes further testing and development, Google is adopted the methodology used by Apple, which develops products in secret and releases them only when they are in their final version.

Google said it will continue to sell Glass to corporations and developers but will not sell to the public after Jan. 19.

"Stalker's tool"

Consumer Watchdog said that Glass 2.0 must include privacy protections. The key problem with the wearable device, Consumer Watchdog said, is that it allows a user to easily make surreptitious and intrusive video recordings.

“Simply put, it is a perfect stalker’s tool,” said Simpson. “It’s difficult to see how they solve that.”

“Glassholes wanted the device because they thought it made them look cool,” said Simpson. “Now even Google gets that it didn’t.”

Google is halting sales of its controversial Google Glass, saying it wants to develop the next version outside the harsh glare of publicity. The first vers...

Google's Captcha tests are changing, but robo-spam commentary probably isn't

Are you a robot? Yes or no

If you read websites or blogs that allow reader commentary, you've seen too many robo-spam comments to count them all: “I make $7800 a week at home in my spare time! Click this link to learn how,” “Your area is filled with horny housewives and/or hunks! Click here to meet them,” or even “This is interesting blog. I learn much on this subject” which almost sounds like something a real human might type until you notice the alleged commenter's name is something like “No prescription V!agra” or “Tommy Hilfiger discount” and links to a skeevy website in someplace like China.

So Captcha tests were invented in hope of culling out the robots and limiting comment threads to actual humans – except that today, you can find a lot of those obvious-spam comments on websites and blogs that do have Captcha test requirements.

With modern technology, robots can pass Captcha tests with a mind-boggling 99.8% accuracy rate, according to Google researchers. (That's a higher Captcha accuracy rate than my hundred-percent-human self can manage, especially when I'm supposed to discern between the numeral 1, a lower-case L or an upper-case I.)

Answer truthfully

That's why Google announced that it will be doing away with Captcha tests in favor of simply asking readers if they're robots: if you check “I'm not a robot,” you'll be allowed in.

Seriously. Google hasn't explained how, in practical terms, that particular anti-robot test is supposed to differ from eschewing anti-robot tests altogether: if robots can be programmed to decipher Captchas better than I can, surely they can be programmed to read and check the phrase “I'm not a robot,” too.

Though Google's plan is a bit more complex than that; apparently you still might face tests if you fail somehow to convincingly click the "not a robot" option. But instead of tests expecting you to identify distorted text images of numerals and letters, you're expected to classify types of photo images.

One of the sample tests Google posted shows a photograph of a live turkey displayed above nine other photographs: five showing live turkeys from various angles, four showing traditional Thanksgiving foods including rolls and cranberry sauce. Presumably, current artificial intelligence technology, though sufficient to let robots read distorted Captcha letters, is not yet good enough to let robots solve that test, especially not robots who couldn't even convincingly click an "I'm not a robot" option.

If you read websites or blogs that allow reader commentary, you've seen too many robo-spam comments to count them all: “I make $7800 a week at home in my s...

Contributor by Google: Wave of the future or marketing ploy?

Sign up for an invitation to pay for the chance to see slightly fewer ads online

There's a common saying about social media, and the Internet in general: if you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're selling. The same holds true for traditional broadcast television, and terrestrial radio: you pay nothing to watch or hear these broadcasts, so you're not really the TV or radio station customer. The customers are the advertisers who pay to air their commercials where you might hear them.

With that in mind, you could say Google's new “Contributor” plan works by letting ordinary Internet users stop being what's for sale, and become paying customers instead. Indeed, Google more or less says as much on its own site, calling Contributor “an experiment in additional ways to fund the web” and noting that “today's Internet is mostly funded by advertising. But what if there were a way to directly support the people who create the sites you visit each day? Introducing Contributor by Google.”

Right now, you cannot simply sign up and start paying for Google Contributor – thus far the service is invitation-only, and the main Contributor by Google page offers visitors the chance to click on one of two different green link-buttons: the one on the left says “Need an invitation? Join the waitlist” and on the right, “Already have an invitation? Get started now.”

A chance to pay

That's pretty standard for new Google services – Gmail and Google+ were both invitation-only when they started, too – but those services were and are free to the end user. Contributor, by definition, is not. But if you receive and accept an inviation to join Contributor, you get the chance to pay Google in exchange for not seeing ads on websites that use Google advertising services. Some of that money you pay Google is supposed to go to the website, in lieu of the ad revenue it otherwise would've received.

Thus far, even for those who have signed on with Contributor, there are only 10 websites, or “publishing partners,” taking part in the venture, including Science Daily, WikiHow and Mashable. Contributors who visit other websites using Google ad platforms will still see ads.

Thus far, Google hasn't offered specific details of exacly how the program works. Contributors can choose from three payment options – you can pay $1, $2 or $3 per month – though the differences between the different plans hasn't been specified yet.

Things to come?

Is Contributor likely to be the shape of Internet browsing to come? Over in the U.K., the BBC spoke to one tech-startup executive (of a company which, incidentally, produces interactive games intended to replace ads) who said that such programs “could change the publisher landscape and how people browse content online.” (Semantic note: “could” covers a lot of ground. After all: anybody could become independently wealthy after receiving an inheritance from a long-lost relative you never knew you had — but don't bet your future on that.)

The Guardian took a more cynical view of Contributor, observing that “Internet giants are exploring new ways to raise cash from their users, but harvesting our data remains key to their strategy.”

And, of course, even if you are invited to give Google one to three dollars per month to divvy up among the various websites you visit, it only works when you're online through your Google account.

There's a common saying about social media, and the Internet in general: if you're not paying them anything, you're not their customer; you're what they're...

Google Express chief defects to Uber

Is Uber planning to get into the home-delivery business?

Uber is starting to resemble one of those start-ups that grows like kudzu. Or something. While expanding into new global markets at near-light speed it is also starting to get its tentacles into neighboring businesses. Like home delivery.

Or so it appears anyway, with the news that Tom Fallows, the head of Google's same-day delivery business, has abandoned Google for Uber. Don't feel bad for Google though. It holds a major investment position in Uber so what's good for Uber is good for Google. It's sort of an Uber uber alles situation.

The obvious implication in all of this is that Uber now has its eye on the home delivery business -- something everybody has been scheming to enter lately, although few have done so on any major scale with any major degree of success.

Lots of cars

An Uber entry makes a lot of sense, however. After all, it has what Amazon, Google, et al, don't -- namely, cars and drivers, lots of them. 

Amazon, which seemingly has everything imaginable in stock, is still largely reliant on third-party carriers -- everyone from UPS to USPS and points in between.

Google has indexed everything but the actual items for its home-shopping service, Google Express, come from retailers like Walgreens, Costco and Staples. Google doesn't have its own cars, unless you count those cute little self-driving ones. It does have a collection of independent contractors who run around buying whatever customers order and then delivering it to them. Not exactly state of the art, but a start anyway.

While neither company is saying much about Fallows' delivering himself from Google to Uber, he dropped a hint that his loyalties had not necessarily been much changed by the move.

“Even though the next stage of my career takes me outside Google, I’m really excited to watch Google Express continue to thrive and expand,” Fallows said in a statement Google emailed to The Wall Street Journal.

Speaking of the WSJ, the news of Fallows' move was delivered earlier today by Re/code, the technology news website started by a couple of Wall Street Journal defectors.

Uber is starting to resemble one of those start-ups that grows like kudzu. Or something. While expanding into new global markets at near-light speed it is ...

Google Now reminds you to pay your bills

Assuming the bills are connected to your Gmail account, of course

If you have so many bills that you just can't remember to pay them all — it's possible you have too many bills, and both your memory and your finances would improve if you found ways to cut expenses, give up pricey voluntary subscriptions, and so forth.

If not, Google is offering to keep track of your bills for you, via a Google Now feature it announced on a publicly available Google+ post yesterday:

When you can't remember whether you've paid your bills—or you simply can't remember how much money you need to pay—you can now just ask Google. Tap the mic on the Google app (g.co/googleapp) and say, “Show me my bills” or “My bills due this week.” If you have the payment due date and amount in your Gmail, you’ll see a quick summary of upcoming and past bills. Pretty handy, huh?

Of course, as the Google announcement says, this service only works for bills sent to your Gmail account, which in turn encourages any user of this service to connect more of their regular bill payments to Gmail.

So far the tech-world response has been largely positive. “Awesome new Google Now feature helps you keep track of your bills,” said GreenBot. “Killer Google Now feature ensures you'll never miss paying a bill again,” said BGR.

More neutral

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal's tech blog took a more neutral tone, listing the useful aspects of the features and how they work, but also noting “the fact that Google is reading your bills via email may unnerve some users and worry privacy advocates.

This has happened in the past when Google rolls out new features like this — and the reaction was especially strong when the company first announced its method of mining Gmail for advertising.”

On the other hand: since Google is indeed scanning the content of private (as opposed to student, government or business) emails anyway, and is certainly aware of whatever bills you have connected to your Gmail address, one could argue it may as well turn some of that scanned data into a new service useful for Gmail users in addition to advertisers pitching to same.

If you have so many bills that you just can't remember to pay them all — it's possible you have too many bills, and both your memory and your finances woul...

General Motors recalls Cadillac XTS and Chevy Impala vehicles

The vehicle's air bags may not deploy in the event of a crash

General Motors is recalling 5 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac XTS vehicles manufactured April 11, 2013, to June 27, 2013, and 2014 Chevrolet Impala vehicles manufactured May 13, 2013, to November 5, 2013.

The vehicles may have left the factory with the sensing and diagnostic module (SDM) set to "manufacturing mode." In manufacturing mode, the vehicle's air bags will not deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of occupant injury.

GM will notify owners, and dealers are to reprogram the SDM to the correct mode, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in September 2014.

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006 or Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 14532.

General Motors is recalling 5 model year 2013-2014 Cadillac XTS vehicles manufactured April 11, 2013, to June 27, 2013, and 2014 Chevrolet Impala vehicles ...

Gmail changes: Google makes it easier to unsubscribe from unwanted emails

But wading through Google's ever-changing posted policies remains as difficult as ever

There's mildly good news for Gmail users trying to reduce the number of spam messages they get: Google is moving any “Unsubscribe” links from the bottom of email messages to the top.

Google announced this change in a publicly available Google+ post on Aug. 6:

Email is a handy way to get updates from your favorite brands, social networks, discussion boards and more. But sometimes you end up subscribed to lists that are no longer relevant to you, and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun.

Both statements are completely true: email genuinely is a handy way to get updates from your favorite brands, etc., and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun. Google is 100% correct about that.

Needle in a bitstack

Come to think of it, combing through entire messages looking for anything is no fun. For example: do you remember last April, when Google changed its service and privacy policies for the nth time, this time to explicitly say that yeah, if you use Gmail your writings will be scanned for various purposes, including advertising?

In order to discover these changes, all the average Gmail user (or consumer-journalist investigating Google's policy change du jour) had to do was visit Google's Privacy Policy page (which, you'd think, is where they'd discuss such privacy-related issues as “Are we or aren't we scanning your email content”), read through all 2,049 words there (according to my word processor's word-count function) in order to determine that none of those words say anything about scanning or analyzing email content one way or the other, then click the link to Google's Terms of Service page and scroll down or read though the first 849 words written there until you finally get to the part where it says “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Nope, combing through an entire enormous eye-glazing pile of unwanted words in search of the one small bit you actually want is no fun at all. It's nice to know that Google empathizes with this, though.

Anyway, Google's Gmail-change announcement goes on to say:

Now when a sender includes an “Unsubscribe” link in a Promotions, Social or Forums message, Gmail will surface it to the top, right next to the sender address. If you’re interested in the message’s content, it won’t get in the way, and if not, it’ll make it easier to keep your inbox clutter-free.

That's great! (By the way: if you use any other email service where the unsubscribe links remain hidden down at the very bottom of your messages, you can make use of your browser's “Find” function: click on “Find,” type in the word “unsubscribe,” and if the word does appear anywhere in your email, you'll immediately be taken to the first appearance of it.)

Google ended its Google+ announcement by saying:

Making the unsubscribe option easy to find is a win for everyone. For email senders, their mail is less likely to be marked as spam and for you, you can now say goodbye to sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link.

Goodbye, sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link (provided of course the message is in Gmail, rather than about Gmail and lurking somewhere in the dense word thickets of Google's posted online policies, terms and conditions)! 'Twas nice knowing you.

Mildly good news for Gmail users trying to reduce the number of spam messages: Google is moving any “Unsubscribe” links to the top of email...

Man arrested for emailed child porn after Google tips off authorities

Protecting children is a good cause, but what are the privacy implications?

Last November, Google announced the launch of a new initiative against child pornography. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt announced at the time that the company was altering its search algorithms in hopes of making it harder to find or share child pornography online, and also making extensive use of Microsoft image-recognition technology in order to detect examples of it.

The process would also involve human oversight; Schmidt said that “computers can't reliably distinguish between innocent pictures of kids at bathtime and genuine abuse. So we always need to have a person review the images.”

Google's announcement then focused entirely on the pictures or videos themselves, and Google's efforts to ensure its search engines weren't used to help distribute them.

Fast forward to last week: In a move which might (or might not) be directly related to Google's earlier anti-child-porn initiative, a Texas man was arrested after Google let authorities know he was using his Gmail account to send images of child porn.

Houston news station KHOU reported on July 31 that:

Police say Google detected explicit images of a young girl in an email that John Henry Skillern was sending to a friend, the company then alerted authorities.

"He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email," said Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce. "I can't see that information, I can't see that photo, but Google can."

Skillern is a registered sex offender who was convicted of sexually assaulting an 8 year old boy in 1994.

It's been known for a long time now that Google scans email contents in order to provide targeted advertising, but knowing that Google scans emails to make its contents available to law enforcement – even for the noble cause of protecting child-pornography victims – raises potential privacy or civil-liberty concerns.

Consider: Last April, citing privacy concerns, Google announced that it would stop scanning student or government-employee email accounts for advertising purposes. Then again – “we won't scan your email contents looking for ad words” clearly does not mean the same thing as “we're not scanning your emails at all.”

Even if you're inclined to think “Well, scanning private emails isn't so bad if it catches violations of the law” – a few years ago, that argument didn't win Yahoo! many fans after it helped the Chinese government crack down on dissidents by handing over email evidence of such crimes as writing emails praising democracy and criticizing China's one-party government.

Not that child pornography is in any way analogous to writing about democracy; it's just worth remembering that the notion “email company cooperates with authorities to catch catch lawbreakers” is only good when the company and authorities are both trustworthy.

That said: Google insists that its automatic image-scanning technology is only used to detect images of child pornography.

Last November, Google announced the launch of a new initiative against child pornography. ...

Supreme Court declines to hear Google appeal

Collecting private data from unsecured wi-fi networks remains a sue-worthy offense

Most news about the current Supreme Court session involves the cases it did address this year, but the cases it declined are arguably just as important. (The way American law works is: if the Supreme Court declines to hear an appeal of a lower court decision, that effectively means the lower court decision stands as is.)

The Supreme Court ended its session without hearing Google's appeal of its earlier Street View ruling, which means Google still faces accusations of violating anti-wiretapping laws.

The problem actually started in 2007, when cars emblazoned with the Google logo could be seen on various city streets, photographing the surroundings for the Street View option on Google maps. Had Google done nothing more than take pictures, there likely wouldn't have been any problem.

But Google also sucked data out of whatever unsecured wi-fi networks it passed, including people's emails, passwords and other sensitive information.

In May 2012, TheNew York Times spoke to a German data-protection official who'd recently won a two-year battle to see exactly what information Google had collected on his fellow citizens:

After months of negotiation, Johannes Caspar, a German data protection official, forced Google to show him exactly what its Street View cars had been collecting from potentially millions of his fellow citizens. Snippets of e-mails, photographs, passwords, chat messages, postings on Web sites and social networks — all sorts of private Internet communications — were casually scooped up as the specially equipped cars photographed the world’s streets.

“It was one of the biggest violations of data protection laws that we had ever seen,” Mr. Caspar recently recalled about that long-sought viewing in late 2010. “We were very angry.”

$7 million fine

In March 2013, Google agreed to pay a $7 million fine over its data-collection activities; Google executives claimed they had no idea its Street View cars were collecting all this data anyway.

And on June 30, 2014, when the Times' tech blog reported the Supreme Court's refusal to hear Google's case, it said: “Google maintains it was not wiretapping as part of Street View.”

Right now, various plaintiffs seek class-action status to sue Google. Thus far they have not officially been granted class-action status, but the Supreme Court decision to let stand lower-court rulings against the data collection will presumably increase the plaintiffs' chances of success.

If the case does go to trial as a class-action, however, it's extremely unlikely it will do so before the end of this calendar year.

Most news about the latest Supreme Court session involves the cases it did address this year, but the cases it declined are arguably just as important. (Th...

Google eyes Songza as its answer to Apple's Beats

Songza streams music tailored to your mood, activity and time of day

There's a lot of froth around streaming music services lately, what with Spotify, Pandora, Beats and others too numerous to curate all competing for not just your time but also your $10 or so per month.

Apple, you'll recall, is paying $3 billion to acquire Beats Electronics, which includes the streaming service that until recently was known as MOG. Not wanting to be left behind, Google is now said to be pawing the ground around Songza, a music streamer that keys its selections to what you're doing at the moment, according to a New York Post report.

We checked it out late this morning and found that with Songza, we could choose music for working in an office, enjoying the morning, and keeping calm and mellow, among others -- all of these being, presumably, mutually exclusive. 

This, we're told, is a notch above the way the other guys do it. They basically build playlists around a few of your favorite artists. This works OK initially, although over time it can result in some fairly esoteric selections. 

Songza, which claims about 5.5 million users, is the only music streamer that tailors its selections to what you're doing, as far as we know. Since Google, along with the NSA, presumably already knows what you're doing, what could be more natural than for it to sweep up Songza as an addition to its Google Play Music All Access, which apparently was created on the day the brand-name manager called in sick?

Where is Amazon?

Google and Apple are, of course, bitter enemies these days, having being close compatriots just a few years ago. Both, presumably, would see Amazon as a looming threat to just about all of their businesses. And it just so happens that Amazon already owns a piece of Songza, which could add some intrigue to what would otherwise be a ho-hum Monday morning business story.

Amazon doesn't currently have a streaming music service but it does sell CDs, DVDs and vinyl recordings and it operates an online music player that will play all the music you buy from Amazon as well as CDs that you upload.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch to imagine Amazon becoming an active player if a Songza bidding battle breaks out.

And about that name -- Songza? Yes, it does have a faintly Italianate ring and yes, the company is based in Long Island City, N.Y., long known as the slice of Queens where taxis go to sleep, but beyond that, we're not speculating.  

There's a lot of froth around streaming music services lately, what with Spotify, Pandora, Beats and others too numerous to curate all competing for not ju...

Google to offer new encryption, greater privacy

Though it's still too early to pass judgment on this news

It's said that hindsight is 20/20, but before you've had time for hindsight to come around you often muddle your way through an indistinct blur.

So it is with the latest news from Google, promising a “new encryption tool” to protect email users' privacy; when the New York Times reported the story on June 3, it kicked off with the sentence “The National Security Agency’s snooping is about to get more difficult.”

This of course is in reference to the NSA's indiscriminate monitoring of American communications in what critics say is defiance of constitutional guarantees against it, and maybe hindsight will one day view this as “One of the milestones on the road leading to Americans' regaining their ability to have private discussions without the government reading and recording every word.”

On the other hand, the whole NSA-spying bit didn't become common knowledge until whistleblower Edward Snowden told the world what his former NSA employers were up to. Among Snowden's many revelations/allegations was one saying that the NSA secretly installed “backdoors” into various encryption programs — meaning, you think your messages are encrypted and secure but the NSA can read them anyway.

In addition to Snowden's files, there are also the (alleged) email communications between Google and the NSA suggesting that Google executives have cooperated with the spy agency more enthusiastically than they've let on.

Of course, the phrase “Google executives” covers many different individuals, some of whom might be more idealistic than others. The New York Times quoted Eric Grosse, Google's chief of security, as saying “It’s important that the government not overstep … We don’t want any government breaking the security of the Internet.”

On the other hand, Grosse was allegedly one of the individuals mentioned by [first] name in those alleged emails between Google and the NSA (assuming the emails are genuine, not taken out of context, and otherwise accurate). And that same New York Times article later said this:

Until now, technology companies have been hesitant to provide end-to-end encryption because it excludes companies like Google and Yahoo from gathering data from messages that can be sold for targeted advertising. None of the major technology providers have signed on to Dark Mail Alliance, a partnership announced last year by Silent Circle and Lavabit, two privacy-conscious communications providers, that offered companies like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo a new end-to-end encrypted email protocol.

So perhaps hindsight will agree that Google genuinely is standing on principle, abandoning not only its former (alleged) close relationship with the NSA, but also a good chunk of its own ad revenue, to preserve the privacy essential for a free country. Or maybe hindsight will laugh at those who were naïve enough to believe it. It's still too early to tell.

It's said that hindsight is 20/20, but before you've had time for hindsight to come around you often muddle your way through an indistinct blur....

No more zavings at Google: digital coupon business shuts down

Zavers by Google e-coupons weren't as successful as hoped

Bad news for anyone who likes using Zavers by Google to collect money-saving coupons: Google's shutting down the program, which launched in January 2013.

It sounded like a good idea: in 2011, Google acquired a startup called Zave Networks. The service allowed shoppers with grocery-store loyalty cards to “clip” online coupons they found on the stores' websites, using Zavers to link the coupons to their cards so that the discounts applied next time the cardholder went shopping.

However, as Recode.net noted on June 2 when it reported the Zavers shutdown: “Sources say the program did not expand as quickly as Google had hoped, in part due to some retailers’ uneasiness with giving Google access to information about their best customers.”

Fairly or not, Google already has a bit of a reputation for sucking up data and even committing privacy violations in the process; in light of this, perhaps the retailers' unease was to be expected.

Bad news for anyone who likes using Zavers by Google to collect money-saving coupons: Google's shutting down the program, which launched in January 2013....

The Chromecar may be to Detroit what Google was to Alta Vista

Google's "autonomous taxi" could disrupt if not downright destroy the car business

So imagine you wanted to design something that does what a car does without having a driver, what would it look like? And what would you call it? Those are some of the questions that Google is now dealing with.

It's no secret that Google has been developing the software that will allow cars to drive themselves. We've all seen the photos of Prius and Lexus vehicles that drive themselves but everyone understands the software-hardware interface on those cars is a retrofit -- a car designed to be driven becomes a rudimentary self-driven vehicle.

But now that the navigation and terrain-sensing software is at an advanced stage, Google engineers have started asking themselves what kind of car they should wrap around it.

A preliminary answer emerged last week as the first photos and drawings of a prototype Google car were made public. To be blunt, it looks sort of like a Little Tykes car -- a seat, four wheels and not much else. No steering wheel, no accelerator or brake pedal. Just a screen where you enter your destination. Oh, and a couple of seat belts.

"The vehicles will be very basic — we want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible — but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people, said Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving Car project

No one we know of has suggested a name yet, but it's obvious it should be called the Google Chromecar. 

Not Detroit Iron

The Chromecar landed with something of a thud in Detroit. Automakers have sort of been assuming -- or perhaps hoping would be a better word -- that Google would be offering a package that could be integrated into existing Hupmobiles but it looks like Big G is out to supply the entire package.

It's taking an Apple approach -- hardware, software, interface all in one integrated package. 

The Google engineers have also done a lot of thinking about how these odd-looking little cars will be used. Will you buy one and keep it in your garage or will you just summon one when you need to go somewhere, sort of like Uber without the driver?

Google, after all, invested some $250 million in Uber last year so it has more than a passing interest in its fate.

But think for a second of the potential advantages of a vast fleet of Google Chromecars that you could summon as needed. It would mean you wouldn't have to shell out $30,000 or so for a car that mostly sits around doing nothing much except depreciating.

It would also mean that cities wouldn't have to devote so much real estate to parking -- a waste of space if there ever was one.

Sits idle 

"If you look at a vehicle purchase today, it's the second largest purchase most people in America make, and it's a resource that basically sits idle for 95 percent of the time," Urmson told reporters at a briefing last week, Automotive News reported. 

The Chromecar concept isn't all that new. It's generally referred to as the "autonomous taxi" model and it is something urban planners and municipal transportation directors dream about. It would answer an awful lot of problems.

Of course, it would also cause a lot of anguish in Detroit and other auto manufacturing centers, not to mention how they're feeling about it over at the local Ford dealership. 

Perhaps one consolation for existing car cultists is that the Chromecar is very much a city car. At least for now, the prototypes will have a top speed of 25 miles per hour, so you won't see them on the Jersey Turnpike or the 405.

You will be seeing them though -- about 100 of them -- on California's streets next year as Google's engineers continue to refine the concept.

Want to take it for a spin? Go ahead, be our guest.

So imagine you wanted to design something that does what a car does without having a driver, what would it look like? And what would you call it? Those are...

Europeans can now ask Google to forget about them

Does this really amount to a cataclysmic assault on the "public's right to know?"

In the United States, the First Amendment trumps just about everything and, unlike the Second, is relatively non-controversial. But every now and then, we're reminded of how rare the right to "publish and be damned" truly is.

Witness Google tying itself in knots as it struggles to comply with a European court's ruling that it must allow individuals to request that information about them be removed from Google's search results.

Google's philosophy, if it can be called that, has always been to include anything and everything in its search index. It has slowly and grudgingly removed links to child pornography and other clearly objectionable information. After all, while the First Amendment protects such activity, that doesn't necessarily mean it's admirable.

The right to publish isn't an obligation to publish in other words. 

Buck passing

Google has traditionally handled individual "take-down" requests by referring them to the publishers of the websites that contain the disputed information. If the publisher removes it, the link eventually disappears from Google.

To cite an everyday example, many local newspapers and news sites routinely publish the "police blotter" -- the official record of a local police department's action for a particular period of time.

Frequently, police officers will arrest someone for, let's say, shoplifting. That person's name then shows up in the report published the next day by the local news sites, even if the prosecutor decines to go forward with the charge and the individual is released -- having not been charged with any crime.

The accused person's name still appears indefinitely, even after the charge is dropped, possibly affecting that person's chances of getting into college, getting a job, security clearance or professional credential.

In one case I happen to know of, the publisher of a local news site -- after receiving a constant stream of such requests, every one of which he granted -- simply decided to stop publishing the police blotters from the 12 or so local jurisdictions his site covers.

"We can't follow up each case so in essence we are convicting the accused without giving them their day in court," I said to myself. Of course, we still report major crimes on my local news site but no longer publish what is essentially the daily trivia report -- barking dogs, drunken driving, thefts from cars, shoplifting allegations.

A public-service business

Note to Google: this cost me a lot of money. The police blotter pages were heavily read. Eliminating them cost me readers. 

But publishing is a public-service business, something that has not always sunk in with the digerati. Publishers have discretion and can pretty much do any damned thing they want, including making decisions that are bad for business but perhaps good for the public interest (or whatever high-blown phrase seems appropriate). It is not censorship to decide that some stories are not newsworthy and should not appear in a responsible publication. 

The European court's ruling strikes many as going too far and strikes others as being impractical. How are Google, Bing, et al supposed to make the decisions that human editors make everyday? It will cost too much money and be too much trouble, critics contend.

Well, perhaps so, but the court has spoken and today, Google has launched a new form on its European websites that residents of the European Union countries can use to request the removal of "outdated, irrelevant" information that may infringe their privacy.

There is, of course, no right to privacy spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, despite everyone seeming to think that the guarantee against illegal search and seizure sort of amounts to the same thing. What the legal basis of the European court's ruling was is likewise something of a mystery but it is now a fact of life that the search engines must deal with.

Void where prohibited

Keep in mind that the court's ruling applies only within the European Union. Therefore, disputed information that is removed from, say, Google's website in Portugal will continue to be displayed in the United States, Mexico, Brazil and, presumably, any other spot on earth that is not within the confines of the European Union.

If a disgruntled German wants to dig up the dirt on his neighbor, he can always ask his friends or relatives living abroad to Google the information and send it to him. 

If this sounds confusing, it is. To keep it all straight, Google has formed a committee to help it navigate the thicket, a task it doesn't seem to think it should be burdened with.

"The court's ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual's right to be forgotten and the public's right to know," a Google spokesman said.

Well, Google, welcome to the publishing business. 

In the United States, the First Amendment trumps just about everything and, unlike the Second, is relatively non-controversial. But every now and then, we'...

Google settles parts of Gmail privacy-violation lawsuit

Pre-dates their current Terms of Service: they're still allowed to scan most emails

Google has settled part of the lawsuit brought against it by various adult Gmail users who claim that Google's practice of scanning email content for targeted advertising violated various privacy protection laws.

MediaPost reported that Google filed a “stipulation of dismissal” last week, but the exact details of that settlement—including whether or not any money changed hands—has not been disclosed. The settlement was made with adults, and does not apply to minors who claim Gmail violated their privacy as well.

Last month, on April 15, we warned you that Google had changed its Gmail terms of service, presumably in response to this lawsuit: ever since April 14, Google's terms of service specifically state that “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Despite this, Google announced two weeks later that it would stop scanning student, government and business emails, though private, personal email accounts presumably still fall under the revised April 14 terms.

So whatever terms are hidden in this settlement between Google and various Gmail users most likely would not apply to anyone using Gmail accounts under these new terms: you can't complain that the contents of your messages are being scanned, because Google came right out and told you (provided you clicked on the link for its Terms of Service page and read or scrolled down past the first 849 words [consisting of five separate subsection headings and 16 paragraphs]). The 17th paragraph of Google's Terms of Service page clearly states that previously quoted comment about automated systems analyzing your content. So, you've been warned.

Google has settled part of the lawsuit brought against it by various adult Gmail users who claim that Google's practice of scanning email content for targe...

Google's vision: ads everywhere

In SEC filing, Google dreams aloud of all the places it hopes to display ads

Your watch, your thermostat, even your refrigerator are just a few of the things Google thinks are simply crying out for ads. 

Ads are good, right? So it's only reasonable that they be plastered on every possible square inch of space. Or, if a square inch isn't available, just about any little remnant will do.

This seems to be the thinking behind a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last December, in which Google argued against an SEC request that it disclose the revenue it generates from mobile devices, according to a report in Apple Insider.

"Our expectation is that users will be using our services and viewing our ads on an increasingly wide diversity of devices in the future, and thus our advertising systems are becoming increasingly device-agnostic," Google said.

Mobile revenue

The SEC had asked Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies to provide their investors with more detail on their mobile revenue, which is thought to be something of a sore spot with Google, since it trails its arch-rival Facebook in mobile ad revenue by most measurements.

None of this is very surprising, really. It's quite apparent that Google is still in its gung-ho phase, seeking to organize (and capitalize on) the world's information. Back in the 1990s, it was Microsoft whose goal was total world domination. It has come down a few notches since then and it's likely Google will too, one of these days.

But until then, it's full steam ahead for Google and Facebook, the clear leaders in the ads-everywhere derby, and a quick look at Google's recent acquisitions and new products offers further evidence of the company's interest in the Internet of Things, wearables and mobile devices.

It bought Internet-enabled thermostat and smoke alarm maker Nest for $3.2 billion, has been betting big on Google Glass and other wearables and, of course, is the parent of the Android operating system that powers more mobile devices than any other.  

Apple followers seem a bit irked by all of this but, aside from the privacy aspects of it all, no one else seems to be protesting too much.

What we don't understand is why Google hasn't yet put contextual ads on buses, delivery trucks and postal vans. Besides solving the Postal Service's budget problems, ads on moving vehicles could alert us to upcoming coffee shops, super sidewalk sales and burrito buffets.

Maybe for a slight subscription fee we could also get speed trap warnings?

Your watch, your thermostat, even your refrigerator are just a few of the things Google thinks are simply crying out for ads. Ads are good, right? S...

Google inundated with European takedown requests

Pedophiles and politicians invoke their “right to be forgotten”

Well, that didn't take long! On Tuesday, May 13, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that Google and other search engines are, in at least some circumstances, legally obligated to stop linking to old news stories about various people — true and accurate news stories about people — if the people in question request it, because in the European Union, apparently, there is such a thing as a “right to be forgotten” and the Internet is obliged to honor it.

The original case was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, whose house was repossessed and auctioned for unpaid taxes back in 1998. A Spanish newspaper printed legal notices about the proceedings — standard operating procedure for a daily paper, in Spain or in America — and then in 2009, Costeja asked Google to stop linking to the old notices in searches for his name.

Google refused, Costeja took Google to court and the court sided against Google.

Requests run rampant

That was Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday came the first undetailed reports that Google was received an unspecified number of takedown requests, and by Thursday morning, the BBC shared some specifics: a politician running for re-election wants Google to stop linking to old news stories about his behavior in office.

A pedophile wants Google to stop linking to news articles about his previous criminal conviction for possession of child pornography, and a doctor wants Google to stop linking to negative reviews written by his patients.

Those are the only three examples the BBC mentioned; Google has not officially commented on just how many takedown requests it has received.

According to E.U. commissioner Viviane Reding, the court decision is “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans,” though it's uncertain where or if Reding and the E.U. Court draws any distinction between “protecting personal data” and “trying to erase history.”

As of press time, there's no word on whether Google will, for example, comply with the takedown requests from the pedophile or the politician, nor whether Google is even legally obligated to do so — the court decision, as written, leaves much room for interpretation.

The E.U. has no equivalent to America's First Amendment's free-speech guarantees; you can be successfully sued for libel even if you're telling the truth. Whether the court will revisit its decision in light of recent developments is also unknown-as-of-presstime detail.

Well, that didn't take long! On Tuesday, May 13, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that Google and other search engines are, in at least some cir...

European Union rules against Google in privacy case

Old news stories can stay online, but Google can't link to them

(Warning: This article might be illegal in the European Union. More specifically, it might be illegal for search engines such as Google to link to this article in the European Union. Why? This article says nothing about how to commit crimes or acts of violence, but it does make mention of a Spanish back-taxes real-estate auction from 1998 and names the individual involved.)

Who owns your personal information? When people ask that question in America, it's usually in the context of sensitive info which (in theory) is supposed to remain confidential: who owns your Social Security and bank account numbers? Employment and salary history? What about your credit-card history detailing everything about you from what you eat and wear to where and when you travel, and how much money you spend on it all … and what, if anything, can you do to protect yourself from getting hurt when some company is careless with all this data?

In short, Americans' “personal information” is usually of the sort that's not supposed to show up on an ordinary online search engine. Also, for Americans, the answer to the question “Who owns your information” seems to be “Nobody knows, but definitely not you.”

Opposite extreme

In the European Union, a high court's answer to that question appears to be at the opposite extreme: not only do you own your personal information, you may also have some control over publicly available information about you, if it's too old or perhaps even unflattering, and while you can't make such information vanish, you can (in some instances) demand that Google or other search engines refrain from linking to it. Though in E.U. terms, it's not so much “the right to control your information” as it is “a right to be forgotten.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union (the E.U. equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, more or less) announced on May 13 that “An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties,” which is another way of saying “Google and other companies are responsible for removing links to certain information, upon request.” An English-language press release summarizing the case is available in .pdf form here.

The Court of Justice ruling was in regards to a case which a Spanish national named Mario Costeja González brought before the court in 2010. But the start of Costeja's complaint goes back much further, to 1998, when he owed some tax debts high enough that some real estate was auctioned off as part of attachment proceedings for repayment.

Public information

In Spain as in America, auctions for tax repayment are public information and thus count as legitimate news, so a Spanish daily newspaper called La Vanguardia published legal notices of the proceedings in January and March 1998. In 2009, those 11-year-old notices still turned up in Google searches for Costeja's name. Costeja asked La Vanguardia to take down the stories and asked Google to stop linking to them, on the grounds that old stories about his debt issues were no longer relevant, now that his debts had been resolved.

Google and the newspaper both refused Costeja's request, so in 2009 he took his complaints to the Spanish Data Protection Agency which, in July 2010, ordered Google to remove the links but did not order La Vanguardia to remove the stories.

Google challenged the order, the E. U. Court of Justice agreed to hear the appeal, and this week ruled against Google.

A footnote in the Court of Justice release notes that the ruling was based on “Directive 9 5/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.”

No First Amendment

There is, of course, no First Amendment in most European countries. This means that would be an open-and-shut case in the U.S. came become quite muddied elsewhere.

There are, for example, few sites like ConsumerAffairs or Yelp in Europe, for the simple reason that businesses can bring libel charges against anyone who speaks ill of them with a reasonable certainty of winning, even if the criticism is accurate. 

In the U.S., the press has over the years developed accepted standards for handling sensitive information that it might have a legal right to publish. For example, most publications voluntarily withhold the identity of rape victims except in the most extreme cases. The Googles of the world largely ignore such niceties.

(Warning: This article might be illegal in the European Union. More specifically, it might be illegal for search engines such as Google to link to this art...

Google named in antitrust lawsuit

Search giant uses Android to foist its apps onto consumers, suit argues

A class action antitrust suit charges that Google uses its Android system to abuse its alleged monopoly in search engines and handheld wireless devices.

According to the suit, Google places Google Play, YouTube and other apps onto devices running the Android OS, a practice that it says has hampered the market and kept the price of devices made by competing device manufactures like Samsung and HTC artificially high.

“It’s clear that Google has not achieved this monopoly through offering a better search engine, but through its strategic, anti-competitive placement, and it doesn’t take a forensic economist to see that this is evidence of market manipulation,” said Steve Berman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Simply put, there is no lawful, pro-competitive reason for Google to condition licenses to pre-load popular Google apps like this.”

The complaint claims that if device manufacturers bound by Google’s distribution agreements were free to choose a default search engine other than Google, the overall quality of Internet search would improve.

Cynical scheme

“The more use an internet or mobile search engine gets, the better it performs based on that use,” Berman said. “Instead of finding a way to legitimately out-compete other internet and mobile search providers, [Google] instead decided to choke off competition through this cynical, anti-consumer scheme.”

The lead plaintiffs -- Gary Feitelson, of Kentucky, and Daniel McKee, of Iowa -- sued Google under the Sherman and Clayton Acts, the California Cartwright Act and California's unfair competition law, Courthouse News Service reported.

“This comes down to a combination of Google’s power in the U.S. general mobile search market and their power in the realm of tablet and smartphone manufacturers,” Berman said. “As a result of the pricing conspiracy, everyone loses. Google and its competitors face an uncompetitive, stagnant market, and consumers are forced into one option.”

Google uses its Android system to abuse its monopoly in search engines and handheld wireless devices, a class action antitrust lawsuit claims in Federal Co...

Google says it will stop scanning student, government, business emails

Looks like regular Gmail is still scanned, though

Trying to pin down Google privacy policies is like discussing the weather: whatever you say about it today will probably be obsolete by next week.

Just a couple weeks ago, on April 15, we discussed how Google, in response to an attempted class-action suit alleging privacy violations in California, changed its Terms of Service for Gmail users to say outright that Google will scan the contents of your emails.

As of May 1, Google's online terms of service page is still dated April 14 and still says, in part, that:

Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.

However, despite these terms, Google has announced intentions to stop scanning the contents of certain emails—specifically, those attached to students' Apps for Education accounts (which have been made available to schools for seven years), and also, those attached to various government or business accounts.

Privacy implications

For all the privacy implications involved in Google's scanning the contents of everyday Gmail accounts (which, according to its terms of service, it still does), the privacy violations inherent in scanning student or workplace accounts are arguably worse. Consider the opening paragraph of Google's April 30 announcement on the official Google Enterprise blog: “Protecting students with Google Apps for Education”:

Today more than 30 million students, teachers and administrators globally rely on Google Apps for Education. Earning and keeping their trust drives our business forward. We know that trust is earned through protecting their privacy and providing the best security measures.

Nitpick: actually, driving that particular business forward requires only the trust (or at least cooperation) of school administrators, and possibly the teachers. Students, by contrast, can be required to use Google at school whether they trust Google or not, which is one of the reasons why scanning their Gmail activities is more fraught with privacy violations than usual.

A similar problem involves workplace accounts, whether government agencies or the private sector: while no adult is legally mandated to hold down a particular job (in the same sense that minors are legally mandated to attend school or otherwise acquire an education), it's still disquieting to think that, for example, letting Google analyze your workplace communications should be a prerequisite for government employees. However, Google has said it will stop scanning their emails, too.

InBloom withers

Google is not the only company to recently step back from data-mining captive-audience public school students. Last week, data-harvesting company inBloom announced its intention to close up shop altogether, after its CEO Iwan Streichenberger posted a head-smackingly self-serving letter blaming his business failure on overprotective parents who don't want third-party data harvesters vacuuming up all available data about their children and themselves:

Over the last year, the incredibly talented team at inBloom has developed and launched a technical solution that addresses the complex challenges that teachers, educators and parents face when trying to best utilize the student data available to them. That solution can provide a high impact and cost-effective service to every school district across the country, enabling teachers to more easily tailor education to students' individual learning needs. It is a shame that the progress of this important innovation has been stalled because of generalized public concerns about data misuse, even though inBloom has world-class security and privacy protections that have raised the bar for school districts and the industry as a whole.

What were these world-class high-impact utilize-the-data corporate buzzspeak services inBloom offered?

Sopho's Naked Security blog, writing about inBloom's shutdown on April 24, noted:

Since inBloom's rollout in 2013, privacy and security experts and parents have been aghast at schools sucking up everything from students' tax ID numbers to intimate family details (including options to identify family members as "foster parent" or "father’s significant other") with inBloom.

So, between Google's recently announced intention to stop data-mining Apps for Education accounts, and inBloom's intended closing, American students this week theoretically enjoy more privacy protections at school than a month or so before. (Even so: you should probably tape over the webcam on any school-issued laptops your kids have, so school administrators can't spy on them at home.)

Trying to pin down Google privacy policies is like discussing the weather: whatever you say about it today will probably be obsolete by next week.Just a ...

Google changes Terms of Service

Yes, it is analyzing your emails

If you use Gmail, bear in mind that Google has updated its terms of service to inform you that it is scanning and analyzing the contents of your emails.

Last August, Google faced a class-action suit in California, based on claims that its practice of scanning emails to put up customized ads violated state and federal anti-wiretap laws. Google initially responded by saying email users had no real expectation of privacy anyway:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’"

Last month, a judge struck down the class-action suit, not on grounds that the claims were unfounded, but on the grounds that the millions of individual Google users who might take umbrage with the scanning policy should not be lumped together into a single class-action case. However, the ruling did not preclude the possibility of individuals making individual claims against Google.

Implied consent

So this week, coincidentally or not, Google updated its terms of service to say, in effect, that if you use Gmail, you automatically consent to having Google scans its contents.

Clicking on this link takes you to Google's Terms of Service page. If you scroll down or read through the first 849 words on that page (according to the “Word Count” function on my word processor), past the “Privacy and Copyright” section (which assures you: “Google’s privacy policies explain how we treat your personal data and protect your privacy when you use our Services. By using our Services, you agree that Google can use such data in accordance with our privacy policies), you will then come to the section titled “Your Content in Our Services,” which says this:

“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

The very next paragraph addresses another frequent anti-Google complaint: that it lumps all its services together to pump up their perceived popularity: For example, people who open Gmail accounts end up with Google+ accounts whether they want one or not – or even, whether they know it or not.

Or: you can no longer comment on YouTube unless you do so through Google+, and sundry other complaints that what happens in one part of your Google-based life can bleed over into other areas of it.

Google's updated terms of service suggest they intend to keep right on doing that:

If you have a Google Account, we may display your Profile name, Profile photo, and actions you take on Google or on third-party applications connected to your Google Account (such as +1’s, reviews you write and comments you post) in our Services, including displaying in ads and other commercial contexts. We will respect the choices you make to limit sharing or visibility settings in your Google Account. For example, you can choose your settings so your name and photo do not appear in an ad.

When PCWorld told its readers about the new changes at Google, it also noted: “The company did not immediately comment on why it had changed its terms of service again.”

If you use Gmail, bear in mind that Google has updated its terms of service to inform you that it is scanning and analyzing the contents of your emails.L...

Ray-Ban, Oakley will frame Google Glass

Can Italian design turn nerdy into neoclassic?

Let's be honest -- Google Glass is generally regarded as pretty nerdy and anybody wearing the face-mounted gadget risks ridicule, at least in some quarters.

But that may change, now that Google has brought Italian eyewear maker Luxottica, owner of the Ray-Ban and Oakley sunglass brands, into the mix. Luxottica has agreed to design, develop and distribute new versions of Google's Web-connected eyewear.

“We are thrilled to announce our partnership with Google, and are proud to be once again setting the pace in the eyewear industry, as we have been, with more than 50 years of excellence,” said Andrea Guerra, Chief Executive Officer of Luxottica Group.

It's not just Luxottica that sees Google Glass as a potential savior of the somewhat moribund eyewear business; VSP Global agreed in January to offer prescription lenses and frames for use with Glass.

Give up their contacts?

After all, with the possible exception of sunglasses and designer frames, eyeglasses are not exactly a sexy product, so it's not surprising that the eyewear biz is hoping Glass can brighten things up a bit. Who knows? Techies may even forsake their contacts in favor of a snazzy Google Glass/Ray-Ban look.

"Google has opened up a new potential opportunity of use of glasses," said Guerra, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal

Google executives have admitted that they have a long way to go in persuading masses of consumers to wear their computer on their face. Technically, Glass is fine but from a fashion standpoint, it has a long way to go.

Luxottica notes in a press release, however, that it "has a 10-year heritage in wearable technology that has evolved from MP3 to HUD devices" whatever they may be. 

"We have come to a point where we now have both a technology push and a consumer pull for wearable technology products and applications," Guerra said. "Seeing such a future, over the last years, Luxottica invested heavily in building-out our technology platforms and digital solutions to combine with our products excellence. 

Let's be honest -- Google Glass is generally regarded as pretty nerdy and anybody wearing the face-moun...

Judge nixes class action in Google data-mining case

Too many claims wrapped up in one omnibus suit, the court rules

When Google changed its privacy policy in 2012 to expand its data-mining, there was an outcry from consumers and privacy groups who were certain that an outrage was being committed. A blizzard of class action lawsuits followed.

But judges have shown little sympathy for the claims. In the latest act of judicial rejection, U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh held that a class action is not the right way to resolve the matter, even though she had previously refused Google's motion to dismiss the case.

"The court finds that individual issues regarding consent are likely to overwhelmingly predominate over common issues," Koh said in her 41-page ruling, Courthouse News Service reported.

At issue is Google's claim that it is within its rights to electronically scan emails to and from Gmail users for the purpose of displaying ads based on the emails' content.

Google contends that such activities are within the normal range of business activities. Privacy advocates say they're not.

Where it starts to get complicated is the point at which millions of individuals, each with slightly different situations and grievances, are lumped into one gigantic class action lawsuit.

Koh's ruling doesn't mean individuals could not, at least in theory, pursue a successful case against Google. It doesn't even mean that aggrieved consumers are wrong to claim their rights have been trampled. It just means that there are too many differing claims wrapped up in one enormous class action.

The other issue facing privacy advocates is the matter of damages, around which all lawsuits revolve. It's difficult for an individual to show that he has been damaged by Google displaying an ad for snow blowers when the individual has penned an email complaining about the weather.

When Google changed its privacy policy in 2012 to expand its data-mining, there was an outcry from consumers and privacy groups who were certain that an ou...

Beware this Google Docs phishing scam

Security experts at Symantec discover "sophisticated" attempt

There's a dangerous new phishing scam, first discovered by security experts at Symantec, that seeks to steal the passwords and other confidential information of any Google account holder.

It's quite sophisticated compared to most phishing attempts, but even so: you should be able to protect yourself provided you pay extra-close attention to details, and also remember the phishing-protection rule “Don't call us; we'll call you.”

Here's how the newest scam works: you, the would-be victim, get an email with the subject heading “Documents”; the body of the email includes a link to an “important” Google Docs document.

Hopefully, if you'd received such an email you'd already know to ignore it, since it's neither personally addressed to you nor from any sender you actually know and recognize. But suppose you decided to click on this unknown link from an unknown sender anyway — what would you have found?

Looks convincing

Here's where the sophistication of this new scam comes in. In most phishing attempts, if you clicked on such a link (and did not immediately infect your computer with all sorts of malware as a result), you'd usually be taken to a page whose address, visible in your browser bar, is obviously not that of the company the scamsters are pretending to be – as in, you get a fake email allegedly from Google, but the link leads to a page with an unfamiliar (and distinctly not Google) web address.

However, as the official Symantec security blogger warned on March 13, if you click on this new Google-based phishing link:

“[T]he link doesn't go to Google Docs, but it does go to Google, where a very convincing fake Google Docs login page is shown. The fake page is actually hosted on Google's servers and is served over SSL, making the page even more convincing. The scammers have simply created a folder inside a Google Drive account, marked it as public, uploaded a file there, and then used Google Drive's preview feature to get a publicly-accessible URL to include in their messages.”

In other words, you think you're logging in to your actual Google account, so you type your email address and password as usual, not realizing that your password is not being read by the real Google to verify your identity, but by phishing scammers to steal your identity.

Still not too late

However, even if you were caught off-guard enough to click on the unsolicited Google Docs link that some unknown sender e-mailed you, it's still not too late to detect certain details indicating a scam. Remember two sentences ago, when we said “you type your email address and password as usual”? That's the detail which sharp-eyed Google account holders should recognize as scammy: usually, when logging into legitimate Google accounts from your own computer, you don't have to type your email address at all, only your password.

As Gizmodo writer Adam Clark Estes pointed out: “if you show up at the log-in screen, you should notice that it doesn't recognize you as a Google user (if you are a Google user).”

Note to non-Google users who don't understand what Estes is talking about here: if you have a Google account, or more than one, anytime you visit a genuine Google page it will recognize you, and you'll see your name, avatar and other personal features as applicable — although you still won't be allowed access to your Gmail or any other personalized, password-protected Google things until you actually type in your password and only your password — your actual you@gmail.com email address is already there.

But with this fake Google phishing scam, you only get a generic login page requiring you to type not just your password, but your email address itself; the genuine Google login pages only require this if you're accessing your account from a public computer, or a brand-new one you've never used to sign in to Google before.

There's a dangerous new scam that seeks to steal the passwords and other confidential information of any Google account holder...

Lawsuit alleges Google unfairly sells in-app purchases to young children

Kids can ring up enormous fees without even realizing it

If you have young children and let them play “free” game apps on their handheld devices, watch out: the kids might be ringing up hundreds of dollars' worth of bills without even realizing it — until you get the bill at the end of the month.

The mother of two preschoolers in New York is suing Google after she downloaded the 99-cent children's game app “Run Jump Smash” to her Samsung tablet. Within the first 30 minutes of playing the game, however, the kids bought $66 worth of in-game currency.

This is actually a common feature of many free or low-cost games: you can indeed play for free, but you're very limited in what you can do unless you pay for certain upgrades. Imagine being invited to play the old-fashioned Monopoly board game: it costs you nothing to join the game and use Monopoly money to buy Monopoly properties, but if you want to put houses and hotels on your properties you must spend real-world cash money first.

You, of course, are too savvy to do this, but critics say it's unreasonable to expect preschool kids to have the same financial wisdom (or even recognize the difference between “This link is free” and “That link costs money every time you click on it”).

Doesn't tell parents

Imber-Gluck's complaint is that when Google lets parents download free or inexpensive apps for kids, it does not tell the parents that for the first 30 minutes, anyone playing the app can automatically purchase in-game currency.

Media Post reports that Imber-Gluck alleges “Google offers many games that use the same bait-and-switch business scheme as Run Jump Smash … Google entices the child with a free or inexpensive (e.g., $0.99) download of a gaming platform that then offers the sale of irresistible game currency in order to enjoy the game as it was designed to be played.”

Imber-Gluck is bringing a class action suit which, among other things, demands that Google give parents to void any in-app purchases made by their children. Meanwhile, you should keep a sharp eye on your children's Google game-playing activities — at least for the first 30 minutes.

If you have young children and let them play “free” game apps on their handheld devices, watch out...

Google asks Glass users: don't be a Glasshole

Good luck with that.

Back when horses were still people's primary mode of transportation, there was a common saying about people who “locked the barn door after the horse has been stolen.” In other words: trying to prevent a problem after it's already happened.

Meanwhile, Google has published a list of dos-and-don'ts etiquette suggestions for wearers and users of Google Glass, saving the best piece of advice for last: don't “Be creepy or rude (aka, a “Glasshole”).

One way to avoid being a Glasshole is to follow the third suggestion on the “Do” list: “ask for permission” before using Glass to take videos or photographs of others.

Problems ahead

For all the snark possibilities about “Glassholes,” one needn't be a Luddite to worry about the anti-privacy implications of Google Glass. Last October, for example, a tech blogger for the Huffington Post (bearing in mind that Luddites, by definition, are not the sort of people who get jobs as tech bloggers) warned that “People aren't seeing the legal problems ahead with Google Glass.”

Even in preliminary testing phases, Google Glass has opened a Pandora's Box of legal concerns. If it does become the next big thing in wearable technology, what are the ramifications for intellectual property and personal privacy when somebody can secretly film or take a picture of you with, literally, the wink of an eye?... blogger Robert Scoble is so gaga for Google Glass he says he wears them everywhere, and posted this supposed picture of himself wearing them in the shower to prove it. But this is exactly the type of thing that should get privacy advocates all lathered up -- where does privacy end when everybody has access to wearable technology? This could go far beyond sexting and sex scandals when nobody knows whether or not they are being watched, no matter what they are doing.

Search online for complaints about Google Glass, and you'll find many that make use of the word “Orwellian”-- a reference to George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984.

But, to be fair, Google Glass (and smartphone cameras and sundry other cheap, ubiquitous recording devices) are distinctly non-Orwellian in a very important way: in Orwell's world of 1984, spy technology was a one-way street. The totalitarian government could spy on and record everybody, but nobody could spy on or record the government.

But a world where everybody can spy on everybody else … well, Orwell never foresaw that and humanity is still trying to figure out how to deal with it, but meanwhile it's worth repeating: Don't be a Glasshole. Or any rhyming variant thereof.

Back when horses were people's primary mode of transportation, there was a common saying about people who locked the barn door after the horse was stolen....

Look out, Google: Case Western develops a new cyber-search method

New search tool finds relevant results faster, researchers say

It wasn't all that long ago that Alta Vista was the hands-down favorite search engine. Then something called Google came along. Now computer scientists at Case Western Reserve University think they may have something even better than Google, although they're still lacking a catchy name.

Would you believe it's called the Conjunctive Exploratory Navigation Interface (CENI)? OK, but other than that, the researchers say their creation saves users time by more quickly identifying and retrieving the most relevant information on their computers and hand-held devices.

"Most people have an iPhone or laptop that stores a wide variety of information and, often, you can't find it when you need it, even though you know it's there," said GQ Zhang, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, division chief of Medical Informatics at Case Western Reserve and an author of the study.

"Or, you go to a website where the content has been divided under different areas, and what you're looking for fits several. If you choose one area but whoever filed the data chose another area, you may not find that information," Zhang said.

Crowdsourced testing

Anonymous testers recruited through crowdsourcing preferred the new search tool nearly two-to-one over a keyword-based lookup interface and the most commonly available lookup search interface using Google, according to the study, published in the open-access Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Side-by-side comparisons showed CENI, which combines two search modes and a more comprehensive way to organize and tag data, is more effective than looking up items by matched keywords alone.

They describe CENI as an on-screen portal where users access data by browsing through menus of topics and typing in keywords and say it provides a more focused search and retrieves the most pertinent information.

In one test, for example, a keyword search came up with 89 responses to a question: "What are the typical vision problems associated with diabetes?" CENI came up with the most applicable 13 by selecting appropriate menus.

CENI overcomes this limitation by allowing data to be tagged into as many areas as relevant, and provides an interface and system that leverages multiple tags for each single data item.

Prototype site

Zhang and Licong Cui, a PhD student in Zhang's lab, have a working prototype designed specifically for the health resource website, NetWellness. This not-for-profit site allowed the public to ask health professionals at Case Western Reserve, Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati health-related questions. More than 60,000 questions and answers are searchable using CENI. The interface is currently not available to the public.

Health information is highly sought after. A Pew Foundation survey found that 80 percent of Internet users have searched for health information, and 60 percent used that information to help make health-care decisions.

But a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that accessing health information using simple terms on such search engines as Google and Yahoo was inefficient. Less than a quarter of the searches led to relevant information, the study found.

This kind of search, called "lookup," can overwhelm the user with a long list of document links the user must then sift through, Zhang said. "If results do not show up in the first couple of pages, they are lost because the user is not going to go through millions of links manually."

CENI combines lookup and another search method, called "exploratory navigation." The exploratory mode enables users who lack a specific target or have trouble forming descriptive lookup terms to use menus of topics to navigate and explore information.

AltaVista in 1999 (Source: Wikipedia)It wasn't all that long ago that Alta Vista was the hands-down favorite search engine. Then something called Googl...

Google offloading Motorola to Lenovo

It was one of those acquisitions that looked and sounded good but didn't quite work out

Well, that didn't last long. It was just last May that Google made a lot of noise about its plan to manufacture a smartphone in the USA, saying the Moto X would be slapped together down home in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Google had purchased Motorola Mobility in hopes of gaining a foothold in the highly competitive smartphone business. Its Android software is already the world's leading smartphone operating system but, apparently, Google was envious of the way Apple had built such fanatical loyalty with its integrated hardware/software system.

So much for that idea.

Mouths dropped yesterday as Google announced it was selling Motorola Mobility to the Chinese computer maker Lenovo, the fast-growing firm that bought IBM's personal computer business a few years ago.

Google paid $12.5 billion for Motorola less than two years ago and is selling it for a little less than $3 billion. That doesn't sound so good but Google is getting a big consolation prize in the form of lots of patents that it got with the Motorola purchase.

Consumers rate Lenovo
So where does this leave consumers who bought Motorola phones? Presumably, they'll have to look to Lenovo for warranty and tech support, which may not be a bad thing. Consumers complain about Lenovo, as they do about all brands, but the company has a huge worldwide hardware support operation, something Google, for all its charisma, lacks. 

There's sensitivity about Chinese companie buying high-tech American businesses but the betting today is that the deal gets done. 

Well, that didn't last long. It was just last May that Google made a lot of noise about its plan to manufacture a smartphone in the USA, saying the Moto X ...

Google Glass getting into the prescription visionwear biz

Prescription eyeglass frames plus Google Glass will cost you $1,725, plus lenses

If you're a corrective-lenses wearer who thinks, "The problem with my life is, not enough of it is online in hackable form," great news! Google is expanding its business model to include prescription eyeglass frames designed to be worn with Google Glass. Frames in the “Titanium Collection” will cost $225, plus the cost of Google Glass ($1,500) and the cost of the lenses themselves.

However, if you do need corrective lenses and decide to splurge on a pair of Google Glass frames, make sure you have a second pair of ordinary, low-tech prescription glasses to wear on those occasions when Google Glass is inappropriate, including those situations where wearing Glass is legal but you'll still get in trouble because your local authorities don't know this.

For example: last October, California resident Cecelia Abadie was ticketed for driving while wearing Google Glass (believed to be the first such ticket of its kind ever issued). But the charges against her were thrown out earlier this month, since there was no evidence Abadie actually had the device turned on. (In most states, it's legal to drive while wearing Google Glass so long as it's turned off.)

Bad night at the movies

An Ohio moviegoer and Google Glass wearer had an even scarier experience two weekends ago; he went to his local AMC Theatre for a Saturday-night showing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” when, about an hour into the movie, an agent working for the Department of Homeland Security suddenly yanked off the glasses and spent the next couple of hours interrogating him and his wife on suspicion of illegally recording the movie. (He wasn't; he had the device turned off, but it took a couple of hours before authorities bothered to confirm this for themselves and return his glasses to him. Meanwhile, the man faced interrogation by intimidating federal agents, plus the additional handicap of dealing with whatever vision problems his prescription lenses were supposed to correct.)

The unnamed Glass-wearer first shared his story with The Gadgeteer tech blog on Jan. 20, but his story (or at least the broad outline of it) has since been confirmed by both DHS and AMC management.

That user also had prescription lenses in his Google Glass frames, which presumably were ordinary Google glasses rather than premium Titanium frames.

Gone nuclear

Incidentally, if you're one of the dozen or so Americans who still watches The Simpsons, you know that last Sunday's episode featured evil Scrooge-like boss Mr. Burns giving his employees the apparently generous gift of “Oogle Goggles,” the amazing high-tech computerized Internet-connected glasses. The catch was that evil Mr. Burns could then use the Oogle Goggles to spy on everything his employees did.

Of course, that is fiction. In real life, C. Montgomery Burns the nuclear plant operator could never use modern Internet-connected devices to spy on you; only members of the NSA, DHS, FBI and night-shift employees of your local movie theater can do that. And they won't give you the device for free: it'll cost you $1,725 for the Titanium frames with Google Glass hookup.

If you're a corrective-lenses wearer who thinks, "The problem with my life is, not enough of it is online in hackable form," great news!...

Is Google outing transgender people?

Since the New Year, Google+ privacy violation accusations have become downright commonplace

If we were prone to believing conspiracy theories, we'd think at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for the competition, with the mission “Make everybody hate Google and especially hate the Google+ social-media platform.” What else can explain the proliferation of Google+ bad-guy stories since the start of the new year?

First there was Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested because the Google+ invite he'd sent his ex-girlfriend violated the restraining order she'd taken out against him. Except Gagnon and his attorney say Google+ sent the invite automatically, without Gagnon's knowledge or consent.

Then, the Consumer Watchdog group criticized Google in an open letter charging serious privacy flaws in its Google+ system: basically, that anyone on Google+ can add anyone else on Google+ to their “Circle” of friends, without their knowledge or consent.

Meanwhile, Google changed the settings of Gmail and Google+ so that, once again, anybody with one such account can contact anybody else with such an account, without their knowledge or consent. (Notice how that phrase “without their knowledge or consent” keeps appearing here? You'd almost think it a recurring theme, regarding Google's attitudes toward its users.)

Integration mania

Many of these problems can be blamed on Google's mania for “integration” – the company (or the secret-agent executive working to bring about the company's downfall, if you prefer) somehow manages to completely ignore the possibility “Maybe people don't want all of their online activities and accounts consolidated into a single mass. Maybe some people prefer, for example, one account for their professional business life, another account for when they're interacting with young children and need to Set A Good Example, a different account for when they're discussing R-rated movies with their grownup friends and Not Setting A Good Example At All …. no no no, here at Google that's just lunacy talking.”

This unwilling integration is behind yet another Google+ privacy complaint, this one plaguing Android phone users who recently upgraded to the KitKat version. On ZDNet, sex-and-technology blogger Violet Blue explained how Google outed a transgender friend of hers without her knowledge or consent (look, it's that phrase again!).

A woman was using her old (male) name at work, and when her Android phone updated to KitKat - with Google+ integrating chat and SMS into "hangouts" - this is what happened when she texted a coworker:

(ICYMI earlier: KitKat did indeed out me to a coworker. I am freaking out.)
— Erika Sorensen (@eiridescent) January 3, 2014
Somehow I didn't think through the potential consequences of Google+ embedding itself ever deeper into stock Android stuff
— Erika Sorensen (@eiridescent) January 3, 2014

Google's response was that her outing was "user error" - Google blamed her, the user for not understanding the new, confusing integration. …. The issue with identity and Google+ Hangouts overwriting people's Gmail and SMS contacts has been trans-unfriendly since its rollout. One woman worried about the privacy of her transgender sister's identity wrote in Google's Forums (Gmail),

My sister is transgendered and has yet to legally switch to female, and because of this has yet to change her name on her Google+ since she has professional contacts on her page.
(...) Now that I have used the video chat option on Hangouts, everything is reverting back to her old name.

She did not receive a response.

Violet Blue went on to list and link to several additional examples of Google taking a cavalier attitude toward users' privacy concerns, before she wistfully said:

On some level, I want to imagine that Google will fix this.

I don't want to think that controlling our own identities doesn't matter to Google; or it's as if to Google we are the faulty parts of its machine. Or we are Google Plus with a body vaguely attached. Or to Google, the problems are our own faults, and any calls for respect or privacy in a painful world are just annoying to Google, which has better things to do, like terrify us with the privacy nightmare of Google Glass and making bulk data consolidators' jobs of cataloging our personally identifying information easier.

Can't blame Ms. Blue for not wanting to think this, as these are depressing thoughts indeed. That's why we kinda favor the “at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for the competition” theory. Granted, this theory sounds unnecessarily complicated and highly implausible, but it's a lot less depressing than Ms. Blue's.

If we were prone to believing conspiracy theories, we'd think at least one high-ranking Google executive is actually a deep-cover secret agent working for ...

Google buys wi-fi thermostat, smoke alarm company

You can sleep well at night. Google is watching.

We're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy Nest Labs, which makes Internet-connected devices for our nests a/k/a homes.

The timing couldn't be better, since it was just a few weeks ago that I installed a Nest smoke and carbon monoxide alarm in the ConsumerAffairs Test Hallway -- you know, the upstairs hallway in my apartment.

A regular smoke alarm goes for about $12 and is as simple to use as inserting the battery and attaching it to the ceiling. Of course, after a year or so the battery starts to die and it begins making that annoying beeping sound.

Even worse, when the blackened redfish starts to smoke, the alarm can go off and drive your dogs crazy.

Soothing voice

The Nest smoke alarm -- price about $120 -- does none of these things. Instead, once you have gone through the rather simple but quite boring procedure of getting it initialized and jammed onto the ceiling, the Nest alarm talks to you in a soothing voice.

It will tell you when its battery gets low. It will also murmur at you when the skillet starts to smoke, saying something like "Smoke in the hallway." The thing sort of sounds like the operating system in "Her," you know, the role voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

Of course, it does more than just speak. It will send a text to your smartphone to tell you that your house is on fire.

Not content merely to be alerted to fires and deadly carbon monoxide, I also added an Internet-connected thermostat -- not a Nest but something similar called Ecobee. Same idea: You can change the temperature setting in your Los Angeles apartment from Barbados or wherever you happen to be.

It cost about $220 plus installation and it took a full two days to get it working properly, including plenty of time on the phone with the installer, the installer's supervisor and the folks at Ecobee, who are somewhere in Canada, where thermostats are very important.

Kind of silly

This stuff is great all right, but you know what? I personally find it kind of silly. And in a time when everyone claims to be worried sick -- sick, I tell you! -- about inequality, I have a hard time seeing how a $120 smoke alarm is of much benefit to anybody. It's sort of like the hedge fund manager who buys a Tesla because he wants to save the earth.

Why would Google pay so much for a company that makes what could be considered over-the-top gadgets? 

Well, the race to dominate the Internet of Things is underway and no one wants to get left at the gate. After all, someone -- someone other than you, that is -- is going to be controlling your "smart home" pretty soon. Will it be Google, Amazon, Microsoft, GE or the NSA?

This is not easy for small minds to grasp, apparently. Nest CEO Tony Fadell recalled in a blog post that back in 2011 he showed Google co-founder Sergey Brin an early model of the thermostat. "He instantly got what we were doing," Mr. Fadell wrote. 

Other connected gadgets now in the design stage include

  • Refrigerators that, like hotel room minibars, can keep a running inventory and order Greek yogurt, prosciutto and Pinot Grigio when your supplies run low;
  • Security alarms that, like the Nest, will text you if someone is breaking into your home to murder you;
  • Dog collars that keep track of what your hound is up to and whether he or she is eating and voiding properly;
  • Cars that text you when it's time to visit the gas station or, more likely, plug them in to recharge the battery; 
  • Medicine cabinets that keep track of your prescriptions, reminding you to take your medicine and ordering refills when needed; and
  • Bathroom scales that post your daily weight to Facebook, assigning "Likes" when appropriate.

Maybe there will also be a device we can put in the marijuana stash to alert us and our dealer (or approved medicinal marijuana retailer) when we're getting down to sticks and seeds. You think?

We're always being told that the "Internet of Things" is the next big thing, and it must be true because Google has just agreed to pay $3.2 billion to buy ...

Further integration for Gmail and Google+

Google likes the proposed changes. Nobody else seems to.

This past week has been a bad one for Google+ public relations. On Wednesday, Americans learned the story of Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested for sending his ex-girlfriend a Google+ invite in violation of a restraining order she'd taken out against him — except Gagnon's attorney says Google sent the invite automatically, without Gagnon's knowledge or consent.

The next day, Consumer Watchdog released a letter highlighting a serious privacy/security problem with Google +: if you have a Google+ account, pretty much any other Google+ user can add you to their “Circle” of friends without your approval, and once your name is in their “Circle,” there's pretty much nothing you can do about it.

Coincidentally, on the same day the watchdog group released this complaint, Google announced some proposed changes to its Gmail system (by the way: if you have a Gmail account, you have Google+ whether you do anything with it or not).

Henceforth, anybody with a Google+ account will be able to send an email to any other user with a Google+ account. As Google asked in its Gmail blog post promoting the change: “Have you ever started typing an email to someone only to realize halfway through the draft that you haven't actually exchanged email addresses?” [Personal anecdote: No.] “If you are nodding your head 'yes' and already have a Google+ profile, then you’re in luck....”

Have to opt-out

If, however, you're shaking your head “no,” you'll need to change the settings on your account, to block Google+-generated emails from strangers. Critics charge that Google's new policy should be “opt-in” (meaning, the changes don't go through unless you-the-user personally allow it) rather than “opt-out” (wherein the changes go through automatically, unless you-the-user choose to block them).

Nick Hide, writing for CNET, noted of the new change: “By default, it's set to 'Anyone on Google+', although I'm seeing reports that if you have a large number of followers the default may be 'Circles'. If someone emails you via Google+ in this way, they don't see your email address, however. I haven't had the change roll out to my profile, either work or personal, but  Google says it will send you an email when it happens -- although some users who contacted me after reading this story earlier did not receive this email.”

Thus far, the only people who seem to like Google's changes are the ones announcing them on behalf of Google, More typical is this complaint/headline in The Next Web blog: “Google, this is the wrong way to build brand loyalty for Google+.”

This past week has been a bad one for Google+ public relations. On Wednesday, Americans learned the story of Massachusetts resident Thomas Gagnon, arrested...

Consumer Watchdog says Google+ Circles admit just anyone, friend or not

But it also thanks Google for taking steps against online predators

Fairly or not, people often judge you by the company you keep. And the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog says this can cause huge problems for people with Google+ accounts, who might not be able to control who does or does not associate with their virtual online personae.

In December, Consumer Watchdog criticized Google for allowing Google+ to become “a virtual playground for online predators and explicit sexual content” (according to this .pdf letter CW sent to Google).

To back its claims, CW also sent Google a detailed, 27-page study (which is also available in .pdf form, but be warned: due to sexually explicit content it might not be suitable to download or read on your workplace computer).

On January 9, Consumer Watchdog thanked Google for clearing out some of the more predatory Google+ accounts but brought another problem to the company's attention: pretty much any Google+ user can add people to their “Circles” whether they want to be there or now.

In social media terminology, Facebook users have “friend lists,” whereas Google+ users have people in their “Circles.” In theory they're pretty much the same thing, only on different social media platforms, so that saying “Let's be Facebook friends” or “Let me add you to my Google+ circle” are more or less synonymous.

Except they're not. There's a big distinction between becoming somebody's Facebook friend and joining their Google+ Circle, as Consumer Watchdog said:

[On Facebook] a person receiving a request from an individual to be their “friend” must approve that request first. If the person chooses not to accept, he or she is in no way associated with the individual.

On Google+ any individual can add a user to his Circles. If the user does not appreciate the posts he sends to them, they can block the individual. However, if anyone visits the person’s profile and he has opted to display publicly who is in his Circles, the user’s name and picture will still appear there. The user cannot remove himself from the sender’s Circles, no matter what, once that person has placed them in their Circle's. A user is forced to be publicly associated with someone with whom they do not wish to be associated.... This is a fundamental privacy flaw and must be fixed. People must have the right to choose with whom they are associated.

Friends and Circles

In other words: on Facebook, I can't add you to my “friends” list (or vice-versa) unless we both agree to it. But on Google+, I can add you to my “circle” whether you want me to or not — so anyone looking through the list of people in my Circle will see your name there, and naturally assume that you chose to associate with me.

Google has already been under fire for accusations that it's going too far in its attempts to expand the size of its Google+ user base (or at least increase the number of people who have Google+ accounts, whether or not they actually use them).

Just this week, we learned the story of Thomas Gagnon, who was arrested after sending a Google+ invite to an ex-girlfriend who had taken out a restraining order against him — except Gagnon's attorney says Google sent the invite automatically, without his client's knowledge or approval. (Gagnon was arrested in late December; as this story is published, Google has not yet released any records related to the invitation or who exactly sent it.)

There's an acronym you'll often see used in online forums: IRL, which stands for “In Real Life” (as opposed to the “virtual” life on the Internet). It usually appears in such contexts as, “I only talk to him online; we've never met IRL.” But as Gagnon's story shows, and Consumer Watchdog's concerns further underscore, “Internet vs. real life” is probably a false distinction — nowadays, the Internet is part of real life, and what you do on the Internet can have real-life consequences … even if you had no idea you did it, because Google's auto-bots did it for you.

Fairly or not, people often judge you by the company you keep. And the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog says this can cause huge problems for people with ...

Did Google+ inadvertently violate a restraining order?

Man claims automatic Google invite led to his arrest

In light of the old joke “You're not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you,” we offer the following joke corollary: “Therefore it's not possible to be paranoid on the Internet, where everyone really is out to get you.”

More frightening is the following non-joke observation: “It's not paranoia to think using Google might be all it takes to get in trouble with the law.”

Last month we told you about the former federal contractor suing various federal officials on the grounds that they unfairly deemed him a national-security risk due to autocomplete results on a Google search:

“In October of 2009, Kantor used the search engine Google to try to find, 'How do I build a radio-controlled airplane …. He ran this search a couple weeks before the birthday of his son with the thought of building one together as a birthday present. After typing, 'how do I build a radio controlled', Google auto-completed his search to, 'how do I build a radio controlled bomb.'"

But if Google+ user Thomas Gagnon's complaints are accurate, what happened to him was even worse. On Dec. 21, the Salem News in Massachusetts reported that Gagnon was arrested for violating a restraining order his ex-girlfriend had taken out against him — specifically, by sending her an invitation to join one of his “circles” on Google+.

But Gagnon's attorney claims that Google+ sent the invitation automatically, without Gagnon's approval.

Numbers inflated?

The story came to national attention on Jan. 8 when tech writer Austin Carr wrote about it for Fast Company; Carr also discussed various ways Google is alleged to have been inflating the number of Google+ users – or at least inflating the number of people who have a Google+ account, regardless of whether they ever do anything with it.

Since last November, for example, anyone wishing to comment on YouTube can only do so through a Google+ account. Even worse (and potentially more relevant to Gagnon's case) are claims that Google connects Gmail accounts with Google+ circles, to the point where “by default, when someone joins Google+ and that person is in your Gmail contacts, Google will automatically send you a notification, along with an invitation suggesting that you "add him [or her] to your Circles to stay connected."

Of course, it's also possible that Gagnon actually did violate the terms of his restraining order, by deliberately sending a Google+ invite to his ex, and is now blaming Google in hope of wriggling off the hook. Thus far, Google has not released any records or responded to any media requests for comment, regarding exactly how that invitation came to be sent.

In light of the old joke “You're not paranoid if everyone really is out to get you,” we offer the following corollary joke: “Therefore it's not possible to...

Google's Android system to power car entertainment system

Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai team up with Google and Nvidia

"What's under the hood?" used to be the first question car enthusiasts asked when a new model came out. These days, the question is rapidly becoming, "What's the operating system?"

Google is the latest to put together an alliance of car manufacturers, including Audi, General Motors, Honda and Hyundai. Microsoft already provides the Sync system for Ford and Apple's Siri is found in some BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Chrysler models. 

There's also some crossover. Some manufacturers will feature one system in certain of their marques but not others.

Google has dubbed its effort the Open Automotive Alliance. It's intended to provide better integration between cars and Android devices and a safer experience that will create an "open development model" to accelerate the use of technology in cars.

The alliance hopes to bring the Android mobile operating system to some car entertainment systems later this year. It's supposed to create new opportunities for developers to power "connected experiences" in cars, much like the "Chevrolet AppShop" announced yesterday.

The group will focus on bringing the Android mobile operating system (OS) to cars in entertainment systems this year.

Safer and more fun

Just what will this be, exactly?

The OAA explains it this way in its publicity material: "We're working with our partners to enable better integration between cars and Android devices in order to create a safer, car optimized experience. We're also developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device. Stay tuned for more details coming soon."

The automakers say it will make driving safer and more fun.

“The worlds of consumer and automotive technologies have never been more closely aligned, and this alliance will only pave the way for faster innovation,” said Ricky Hudi, Head of Electrics/Electronics Development at AUDI AG. “Working toward a common ecosystems benefits driver safety above all.”

“Partnering with Google and the OAA on an ecosystem that spans across vehicles and handheld mobile devices furthers our mission to bring vehicles into our owners digital lives and their digital lives into their vehicles,” said Mary Chan, President of General Motors' Global Connected Consumer unit. “We see huge opportunities for the Android platform paired with OnStar 4G LTE connectivity in future Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac vehicles.”

“Millions of people are already familiar with Android and use it everyday,” said Sundar Pichai, SVP of Android, Chrome & Apps at Google. “The expansion of the Android platform into automotive will allow our industry partners to more easily integrate mobile technology into cars and offer drivers a familiar, seamless experience so they can focus on the road.”

OAA graphic"What's under the hood?" used to be the first question car enthusiasts asked when a new model came out. These days, the question is rapidly ...

Google and HP recall HP Chromebook 11 chargers

The charger can overheat and melt

Google and Hewlett-Packard are recalling about 145,000 HP Chromebook 11 power supply/charger units.

The computer’s charger can overheat and melt, posing fire and burn hazards.

Google has received nine reports of chargers overheating and melting during use. There is one report of a small burn to a consumer and one report of minor property damage to a pillow from an overheating charger.

This recall involves chargers that were sold with the HP Chromebook 11. The charger is black with outlet pins, measures 1¾ inches by ¾ inches, and has a 6-foot long cord with a micro-USB connector on the end. The model number of the charger is MU15-N1052-A00S, which is stamped on the face of the battery charger that has the outlet pins.

The chargers, manufactured in China, were sold at Best Buy stores nationwide and online at Amazon.com, bestbuy.com, Google Play at play.google.com, and HP Shopping at shopping.hp.com from October 2013, through November 2013, and included with the Chromebook 11 which sold for about $280.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled charger for the HP Chromebook 11 and contact Google for a free replacement.

Consumers may contact Google toll-free at (866) 628-1371 between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m. PT seven days a week.  

Google and Hewlett-Packard are recalling about 145,000 HP Chromebook 11 power supply/charger units. The computer’s charger can overheat and melt, posing f...

Judge shows little sympathy for Google users' privacy complaints, dismisses class action

No one has shown any actual damages from Google's use of personal data

The essence of a lawsuit is to enable one party to recover the damages caused by the negligent or deceptive actions or omissions of the other party.

In other words -- no damage, no case.

And that's exactly how U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal viewed the claims of a class action suit taking issue with Google's use of the data it harvests about its users as they search the web, send emails and engage in other online activities, Courthouse News Service reported.

Saying that Google made money from the data and didn't share it with its users isn't much of an argument, Grewal said. 

"A plaintiff must do more than point to the dollars in a defendant's pocket; he must sufficiently allege that in the process he lost dollars of his own," Grewal wrote. "Plaintiffs' allegations certainly plead that Google made money using information about them for which they were provided no compensation beyond free access to Google's services. But an allegation that Google profited is not enough equivalent to an allegation that such profiteering deprived plaintiffs of economic value from that same information."

In other words, it's not as though throngs of competing search engines and marketing companies were waiting in the wings, eager to buy the data that Google obtained by providing free services to its users. 

With that, Grewal dismissed the suit. Game over.

The suit was filed in March 2012 after Google updated its privacy policy to permit the commingling of user data across different Google products, such as Gmail and YouTube. The new privacy policy allowed Google to combine a user's information from one service with the user's information from other services.

The complaint also alleged that the new policy violated the users right to privacy, although there is no explicit right to privacy in the Constitution, popular opinion notwithstanding.

The essence of a lawsuit is to enable one party to recover the damages caused by the negligent or deceptive actions or omissions of the other party. In o...

Consumer Watchdog: deceptive Google Shopping results?

The first price isn't the best price when you search online

There’s a common saying about social media and other Internet companies: “If you’re not paying them anything, you’re not their customer; you’re what they’re selling.”

So if you use web-based email or Facebook or Google or other free sites — you pay nothing to use them, so how do these companies make money?  Through advertising, of course, and media companies that sell advertising space are basically selling an audience of potential buyers.

With that in mind, check out a complaint filed with the FTC by Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit organization, complaining about what it says is deception in Google Shopping results.

Unfair and deceptive

“The way that the Internet giant is featuring results from Google Shopping without making it clear that the highlighted results are nothing more than advertisements for merchants who bid for placement is an unfair and deceptive act, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act," said John Simpson, CW’s Privacy Project Director. "Moreover, consumers are actually being harmed because the featured results from Google Shopping more often than not return higher prices than can be found elsewhere, when consumers would reasonably expect Google’s suggestions to be the best.”

Hmm. Reading that made us recall a story we published last month about rent-to-own or lease-to-buy stores;  the gist of the piece is that you should avoid such businesses, because they sell furniture and appliances for much higher prices than ordinary retail stores. To demonstrate, we chose certain items and did price comparisons between the rental centers and various retail outlets, and said this: “We searched online for that make and model of television, and one of the first websites that came up is Kohl’s (which is not remotely the cheapest store we could find).”

We used Google to do that search, so we can say from our own experience: if you use Google to look for a smart TV, the first results will not offer the lowest prices.

However, Consumer Watchdog’s complaint is not based on any idea that Google is somehow obligated to prioritize its search results based on price. Instead, CW said this:

“Google’s presentation of the Google Shopping results disguises the fact that the results are in fact advertisements. Clicking on any one of the Google Shopping suggestions takes the user directly to the merchant’s page where the product can be purchased … Each suggestion is nothing more than an advertisement, however, there is no label that makes this clear.  The omission of an ad label is even more egregious when the Google Shopping results are presented surrounded by results that are marked as ads. Thus, the consumer can only conclude that the Google Shopping results are suggestions, not advertisements.”

A similar analysis from the Financial Timesshowed that “five out of every six items highlighted on a Google search are more expensive than the same items from other merchants hidden deeper in the Google Shopping service.”

Think of these results as yet another reminder why savvy consumers should never assume the first price they see is the best one.

There’s a common saying about social media and other Internet companies: “If you’re not paying them anything, you’re not their cust...

Google opening retail showrooms in select locations

They won't be stores, just showrooms. Want to buy? Go online

Google takes another step in its transition to an Apple-style company this month as it opens retail showrooms where consumers can try out such products as Nexus 7 tablets, Chromebook computers, and Chromecast video-streaming devices.

They are literally showrooms, not stores. You can walk in and examine the merchandise and, if you like it, order it online. Google has previously worked with retailers like Best Buy to set up sections that display nothing but Google products, but this is taking it a step farther.

The showrooms will feature a large snow globe complete with snow, we're told. Customers will be able to take pictures and videos of themselves with the products that they can share online -- right from the Google showroom! We're not sure this will have the gee-whiz effect Google is hoping for, but who knows?

Just where the showrooms will be isn't quite clear at this point. 

How, you ask, is this like Apple? Well, Google has been steadily moving towards becoming a manufacturer of integrated software and hardware products -- laptops, tablets and smartphones that come with their own operating system. 

Life is a lot easier for a manufacturer when devices can be designed to run one, and only one, operating system. Microsoft rather valiantly for years produced its Windows OS that will more or less happily run on just about any machine and interact with a nearly infinite number of peripherals -- you know, printers, scanners, keyboards, etc. Its reward was being portrayed in commercials as a rumpled guy who produced bloatware instead of the cool dude who put out walled-garden my-way-or-the-highway products.

There's also the "cool" factor. Apple had it in the Steve Jobs era. Google is trying but may not be quite there yet.

Will opening what amount to ersatz igloos in shopping centers move the cool needle? Well, we'll see, won't we?  

Google will open retail showrooms this month featuring products such as Nexus 7 tablets, Chromebook computers, and Chromecast video-streaming devices. Cons...

Google announces anti-child porn initiative

Changes to search algorithms, increased human oversight, and more

There are changes coming to Google, though (fortunately) most everyday users shouldn’t notice anything different: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has announced that the company is altering its search algorithms in hopes of making it harder to find or share child pornography. The company is also making extensive use of Microsoft image-recognition technology.

Schmidt explained the new plan in a piece he wrote for the UK'sDaily Mail on Nov. 17. (The announcement first appeared in a British rather than American newspaper because the company’s actions are presumably in response to various anti-child-pornography initiatives by UK prime minister David Cameron, after two particularly brutal real-life child murders last year).

Google is approaching the problem from four angles. The first two are “cleaning up search” in hopes of preventing child-abuse links from appearing in search results, and “deterrence” via pop-up legal warnings that will appear if anyone searches for possibly illegal content. These two are to be achieved automatically, via changes in the search algorithms.

For the third category, “detection and removal,” Schmidt admitted that “There's no quick technical fix” because “computers can't reliably distinguish between innocent pictures of kids at bathtime and genuine abuse. So we always need to have a person review the images.”

If a human viewer determines that a picture or video is indeed pornographic or otherwise indicative of abuse, the image will be given a “digital fingerprint” allowing the company to recognize it anytime it appears on a computer. And, of course, the three previous categories all fall under the aegis of “technical expertise,” which both Microsoft and Google have in abundance.

We certainly don’t envy whichever Google employees -- or, more likely, contract workers -- end us tasked with the job of looking at photos of children all day to ferret out signs of sexual abuse. But Schmidt’s emphasis on human oversight is likely meant to assuage any censorship or civil-liberty concerns the plan might raise.

There are changes coming to Google, though (fortunately) most everyday users shouldn’t notice anything different: Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt ann...

Google settles privacy violations for $17 million

States charged Google circumvented privacy settings on Apple's Safari web browser

Google has agreed to pay $17 million to settle charges that it violated consumers' privacy by tracking the web usage of Apple customers who thought their Safari web browser's privacy settings protected them.

“Privacy is paramount,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, one of 37 state AGs who prosecuted the case against Google. “If a business improperly intrudes on consumers’ privacy, the Attorney General’s Office will pursue them.”

Google altered its coding to circumvent the Safari default privacy settings, without consumers’ knowledge or consent. This allowed advertisers to set third-party cookies on consumers’ Safari browsers, despite the fact those users believed their privacy settings protected them.

Through its DoubleClick advertising platform, Google’s search engine generates revenue by helping to transmit third-party advertising ‘cookies’ — small files set in Internet users’ Web browsers — that allow advertisers to gather information about those users. Depending on the type of cookie, the information collected could include the user’s web surfing habits and location.

Apple’s Safari Web browser generally blocks third-party cookies in its default privacy settings, including cookies used by DoubleClick to track a consumer’s browsing history.

Unfair practices

From June 1, 2011 until February 15, 2012, Google altered its DoubleClick coding to circumvent the Safari default privacy settings, without consumers’ knowledge or consent. This allowed advertisers to set third-party cookies on consumers’ Safari browsers and gather information, despite the fact those users believed their privacy settings protected them.

Google disabled this coding method in February 2012 after the practice was widely reported on the Internet and in media.

Washington and other states alleged that Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings. They also allege Google misled consumers through earlier representation that cookies were automatically blocked for Safari users.

The attorneys general also alleged Google violated state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws by circumventing Safari’s default privacy cookie-blocking settings.

$17 million

Google has agreed to pay the states $17 million to settle the case. The funds may be used for civil penalties, attorneys’ fees and future consumer protection education.

Google also agreed to injunctive relief that requires the following: 

• Refrain from using code to override a browser’s cookie blocking settings without the consumer’s consent unless it is necessary to detect or prevent fraud, security or technical issues.
• Not misrepresent or omit information about how Google connects advertisements to consumers’ browsers.
• Improve provided information regarding cookies, their purposes, and how they can be managed by consumers using Google’s products or services and tools.
• Maintain systems designed to ensure the expiration of the third-party cookies set on Safari Web browsers during the period that Google had circumvented the default settings.

States involved

Washington was part of a 10-state executive committee that led the investigations, which also included Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Vermont. The multi-state settlement also included Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Google has agreed to pay $17 million to settle charges that it violated consumers' privacy by tracking the web usage of Apple customers who thought their S...

Google asks for short-cut to appeals court in wiretap case

It says a rapid appeal will help define Internet privacy issues for everyone

Normally, the defendant in a lawsuit drags its feet, using whatever delaying tactics it can come up with, thinking of appeals court only as a last resort.

But sometimes the defendant is Google. Deep pockets. Overwhelming strategic motivation to win. Business model at stake.

Seen in that light, it's perhaps not surprising that Google has asked U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh to let Google go directly to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an attempt to overturn -- or wriggle out from under, depending on your point of view -- Judge Koh's September decision to allow a wiretapping case against Google to go forward.

In that case, lead plaintiffs Brad Scott and Todd Harrington claim that Google scans Gmail messages for words and content, and intentionally intercepts messages between Gmail subscribers and non-subscribers.

Google has said that emails are only read by computers and that, therefore, there is no invasion of users' privacy. But Judge Koh rejected Google's claims that wiretapping laws do not apply to its Gmail business and that consumers who email Gmailers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. 

At Tuesday's hearing, Judge Koh asked how an expedited appeal would help move the case forward.

“We think clarification from the circuit will advance the termination of the litigation, if the circuit finds there are grounds to dismiss the case,” attorney Kathleen Sullivan, representing Google, said, according to Law360.com. An appeals court review would also clarify similar arguments now being lodged against Yahoo and other tech companies, she argued.

The judge and the attorney for the plaintiffs asked Sullivan if Google thinks there is any limit to what it can do. Sullivan replied that Google's privacy policy and terms of service outline what it can and cannot do and that users of Gmail agree to those policies by using the service.

Sullivan noted that under federal law, only one of the two parties in an email exchange must consent to the interception of email for it to be legal, Sullivan said.

“If you communicate with a Gmail user, you assume the risk," she said.

Normally, the defendant in a lawsuit drags its feet, using whatever delaying tactics it can come up with, thinking of appeals court only as a last resort....

Want to see your name in digits? Just praise a product on Google Plus

Google announces its version of Facebook's "Sponsored Stories"

Want to make big bucks by endorsing products in Google ads? It's easy, as long as you omit the big bucks part. Following in the footsteps of Facebook, Google plans to start selling its users' endorsements to advertisers.

This means that if you give five stars to a movie or coffee concoction on Google Plus or YouTube, your name, photo and comments may wind up in ads shown to your friends and just about everybody else on Google's network of about two million affiliated sites.

Facebook pioneered this practice, which many users find creepy or downright predatory, and found itself in hot water, not to mention a class action lawsuit. Google is proceeding with a little more caution, however. It is serving notice in advance of the Nov. 11 start date, thorugh changes to its terms of service and says it will post notices on its home page and elsewhere. Users will be able to opt out, Google promises. 

Google also says that only adults -- those over 18 -- will be featured in the endorsements. No kids allowed.

High praise

Advertisers love these endorsements. They're considered the highest form of praise -- basically your friends (or people who would be your friends if you ever met them) passing on inside tips on what's hot and what's not.

They're like the reviews on Yelp, ConsumerAffairs and other peer review sites, except -- hey -- they're all positive.

Want to make big bucks by endorsing products in Google ads? It's easy to do as long as you omit the big bucks part. Following in the footsteps of Facebook,...

Judge rejects Google's defense, privacy lawsuit moves forward

Plaintiffs say Google's scanning of Gmail messages amounts to wiretapping

A federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic monitoring of its subscribers' Gmail.

Lead plaintiffs Brad Scott and Todd Harrington claim that the web-based service scans emails for words and content, and intentionally intercepts messages between Gmail subscribers and non-subscribers.

Google has said that emails are only read by computers and that, therefore, there is no invasion of users' privacy. But U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh rejected Google's claims that wiretapping laws do not apply to its Gmail business and that consumers who email Gmailers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. 

The decision finds that reading emails is not a necessary part of Google's business operations and that California's Invasion of Privacy Laws apply to opening and reading online communications without consent.

"Very big consumer victory"

"Google’s alleged interceptions are neither instrumental to the provision of email services, nor are they an incidental effect of providing these services," Judge Koh ruled. "The Court therefore finds that Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the interceptions fall outside Google’s ordinary course of business."

Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit, called Koh's ruling "a very big consumer victory for the right to use the Internet without having to give up one's privacy."

“This is a historic step for holding Internet communications subject to the same privacy laws that exist in the rest of society. The court rightly rejected Google's tortured logic that you have to accept intrusions of privacy if you want to send email,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “The ruling means federal and state wiretap laws apply to the Internet.  It's a tremendous victory for online privacy. Companies like Google can't simply do whatever they want with our data and emails.”

Koh explicity rejected Google's argument that because the monitoring was done by machines, it didn't count.

"The statute explicitly limits the use of service observing or random monitoring by electronic communication service providers to mechanical and service quality control checks," Koh wrote. "Accordingly, the statutory scheme suggests that Congress did not intend to allow electronic communication service providers unlimited leeway to engage in any interception that would benefit their business models, as Google contends. In fact, this statutory provision would be superfluous if the ordinary course of business exception were as broad as Google suggests."

A federal judge has turned aside Google's attempt to derail a class action that accuses it of violating wiretapping and privacy laws through its electronic...

Google baking up a replacement for cookies

Reports say the search giant is developing a proprietary tracking method to replace cookies

So this is how the cookie crumbles -- Google crushes it and sweeps the crumbs off the table.

Consumers, parents, regulators and privacy advocates have complained for years about the tiny pieces of code called "cookies" that websites and advertisers place on users' computers, objecting to their use in "tracking" consumers around the web.

Google is said to be baking up an alternative -- something that would provide better security and anonymity for users while presumably improving the advertising and marketing functions that keep websites in business.

No one likes advertising -- or at least few people admit to liking it -- but it does pay the bills, after all. Creating the content and managing the increasingly complex task of keeping websites operating smoothly is by no means cheap. Take away the anonymous tracking that now enables advertisers to target ads that likely to be, well, on target to specific audiences and you pretty much take away the Internet as we know it.

Tighter control

If Google, which after all has more Ph.D. engineers than most companies have paper clips, can perfect its still-secret new system, advertisers would have to come to Google to get the marketing informatiion that they now get from cookies.

There have been attempts to limit the use of so-called "third-party cookies" but so far none has succeeded. Just a few days ago, the ad industry pulled out of a group effort to impose new Do Not Track protocols. 

Just to be clear: A "first-party cookie" is one that is placed on your computer by a site you visit frequently -- Amazon, let's say.  It's basically your name tag when you return to that site. The first-party cookie makes it unnecessary for you to go through the log-in process each time you visit and it also enables Amazon to show you what amounts to a customized site -- one that features the types of products you've bought in the past and browed for recently.

Third-party cookies, on the other hand, are placed by advertisers whose ads you see in the course of clicking around the web each day. They enable the advertisers to see where you go -- what sites you visit and, perhaps, what items you order. Again, this enables the advertiser to show you ads based on your apparent shopping preference.

Sex toys & cigars

This sounds harmless but if you go shopping for, let's say, sex toys, you don't really want your screen festooned with ads for such gadgets the next time your spouse or significant other sits down to use your computer. Of if you promise your spouse you have quit smoking but your screen is full of ads for mail-order cigars, domestic disharmony may result.

If Google can get a lock on the tracking business, it could enforce privacy rules that would satisfy many of the objections that are floating around today. Of course, saying it could doesn't necessarily mean it would but it's at least a possibility.

The advertising industry is not exactly in a state of bliss over the possbility that it might have to bow down to the mighty Google and already is quibbling over the name that Google is said to have assigned to the project: AdID.

AdID, it turns out, is the trademark of the Association of National Advertisers and the 4As -- the American Association of Advertising Agencies. It's a digital coding technology for identifying and managing ads across various platforms.

OK, so maybe Google can't use the AdID name. It's easy enough to think up alternatives. At the moment, the problem is not a shortage of snazzy names, it's a surplus of cooks in the bakery -- and we all know the result of that. 

So this is how the cookie crumbles -- Google crushes it and sweeps the crumbs off the table.Consumers, parents, regulators and privacy advocates have com...

Google fails in bid for dismissal of class action challenging its handling of Gmail

Judge takes dismissal motion under advisement but warns parties to prepare for trial

A massive class action case against Google has survived, at least for now, a motion for dismissal by Google. The case concerns Google's policy of scanning every email sent to and from Gmail users so it can pick out keywords that are used to target advertising to its users.

The plaintiffs in the case argue that Google is violating federal wiretapping laws and California state privacy laws by reading the emails. Google, for its part, has challenged the legal standing of the two lead plaintiffs because they don't live in California and has claimed its electronic eavesdropping is legitimate.

But U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh seemed lukewarm to Google's arguments and warned the parties to be ready to go to trial in 2014, Courthouse News Service reported. 

Google lawyer Whitty Somvichian argued that the company's practice of scanning emails is used solely for its targeted advertising scheme and to enhance its other services.

"It's a legitimate business function," Somvichian argued at the Thursday hearing. "All users of email must necessarily expect that their emails will be subject to automated processing."

Emails aren't postcards

But plaintiffs' attorney Sean Rommel fired back, saying Google's practices benefit Google alone.

"Emails are not postcards, they're private transmissions protected by Congress," Rommel said. "Google reads every single email sent. Advertising is the greatest smokescreen in the modern era."

While Google claims it gives adequate notice of its policies to its users who must agree to its terms of service to open a Gmail account, Rommel noted that Google reads the messages of non-Gmail users who write to Gmail users.

Those non-Gmail users have never agreed to Google's terms of service, he noted.

"Every Gmail user gives Google a lifetime license to use every email received and sent," Rommel added. "That's astonishing and the scariest thing I've ever heard." according to the Courthouse News Service report.

A massive class action case against Google has survived, at least for now, a motion for dismissal by Google. The case concerns Google's policy of scanning ...

So is Gmail private or not?

Consumer group says Google speaks with forked tongue

Google and a California non-profit, Consumer Watchdog, are hurling accusations and insults today over whether consumers should really expect their emails to be private.

The dispute grows out of a class action lawsuit that charged Google was violating federal and state wiretap laws by analyzing its 425 million users' emails. In a court filing, Google said that people can’t expect privacy when sending a message to a Gmail address.

In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Google said there is no reasonable expectation of total privacy when sending an email through the public Internet:

“Just as a sender of a letter to a business colleague cannot be surprised that the recipient’s assistant opens the letter, people who use web-based email today cannot be surprised if their emails are processed by the recipient’s [email provider] in the course of delivery. Indeed, ‘a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.’"

Consumer Watchdog jumped on the motion and called on Google to "stop reading and analyzing the content of emails sent to its system."

In response, Google seemed to backtrack from the message in its court filing, saying:

“We take our users’ privacy and security very seriously; recent reports claiming otherwise are simply untrue. We have built industry-leading security and privacy features into Gmail — and no matter who sends an email to a Gmail user, those protections apply.”

Which is it?

Google can't have it both ways, Consumer Watchdog said, alleging that "Google is either lying to the court or lying to the public."

“If they take privacy seriously, then they must amend their brief and stop reading and analyzing the content of email we send to their system,” said Consumer Watchdog's John M. Simpson. “If Google stands by the claim of no expectation of privacy it asserted in the court filing, they cannot claim to respect users’ privacy. These two claims are obviously incompatible.”

Google has always insisted that the "processing" to which emails are subjected is automated and intended only to match advertising to the general context of the email or to sort emails into appropriate folders or categories.

In its motion, Google said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were trying to "criminalise ordinary business practices" that have been part of Gmail's service since it was introduced.

The class action lawsuit, filed in San Jose U.S. District Court in May, charges that Google "unlawfully opens up, reads, and acquires the content of people's private email messages." It quotes Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman as saying: "Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it."

The suit claims that "on a daily basis and for years, Google has systematically and intentionally crossed the 'creepy line' to read private email messages containing information you don't want anyone to know, and to acquire, collect, or mine valuable information from that mail."

The full text of the lawsuit was filed under seal because it details many of Google's confidential and proprietary business practices. A hearing in the case is set for Sept. 5 before Judge Lucy H. Koh.

Google and a California non-profit, Consumer Watchdog, are hurling accusations and insults today over whether consumers should really expect their emails t...

Google agrees to $8.5 million privacy settlement

Search giant disclosed users' search queries to third parties

Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit over its alleged disclosure to third parties of users' search queries, a practice Google halted in October 2011 when it began encrypting search queries, Courthouse News Service reported.

The lawsuit claimed that Google passed on private information through "referrer headers," allowing others to see which websites users were visiting and also displaying the search terms typed in by the user.

The lead plaintiff, Paloma Gaos, argued that the headers could have revealed confidential information including the users' name, religion, medical conditions and sexual orientation. 

A similar case was filed in Illinois and the suits were later consolidated.

The preliminary settlement calls for Google to pay $8.5 million into a settlement fund that will cover administration expenses, incentive awards to the class representatives, attorneys' fees for class counsel and distributions to seven nonprofits that have agreed to use the funds for public awareness and research related to Internet privacy.

Google would also post disclosures on its website concerning user search queries, including information about whether users' search queries are transmitted to third parties.

The proposed non-profit recipients are World Privacy Forum, Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago-Kent College of Law Center for Information, Society, and Policy, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Stanford Center for Internet and Society, MacArthur Foundation and AARP Inc.

Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit over its alleged disclosure to third parties of users' search queries, ...

States nag Google about privacy, ads for illegal products

States irate over YouTube ads for illegal pharmacies, how-to videos for would-be forgers

The feds have lately been hectoring Google about paid ads not being clearly distinguished from search results and now states are piling on with complaints of their own.

Three states that aren't normally thought of as thought-leaders in Internet matters -- Oklahoma, Nebraska and Mississippi -- are calling on Google to crack down on ads for illegal drug sales, while Washington and 22 other states are continuing to pressure Google to improve privacy protection for consumers.

In the case of the drug ads, the state attorneys general are irate about ads for prescription drugs popping up on Google's YouTube. They're also objecting to how-to videos on creating forged driver's licenses and passports, often accompanied by ads from immigration lawyers.

"We understand that YouTube is an open platform and that not all content can or should be policed. Nevertheless, the fact that Google actively seeks to profit from the posting of these types of videos on YouTube - a website known to be particularly popular among children and teens - is very troubling," the AGs said.

It was just two years ago that Google paid $500 million to settle a criminal investigation into allegations that it had made hundreds of millions of dollars for ads promoting illegal online pharmacies.

Last June, Mississippi AG Jim Hood said he was prepared to subpoena Google as part of a probe into the illegal online sale of prescription products.

Privacy issues

On the privacy front, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he and 22 other state AGs have been making progress in trying to persuade Google to improve its privacy protections for consumers and calling on the company to offer greater transparency and more meaningful privacy controls.

“With every click, consumers leave a trail of personal information that is used by companies for commercial purposes,” Ferguson said. “I will continue to focus on increasing consumer protection online.”

Last year, 36 state attorneys general wrote to CEO Larry Page expressing serious concerns with the way Google handles consumers’ privacy. This occurred after Google implemented a new unified privacy policy without giving consumers a meaningful opportunity to opt out. The attorneys general asked to meet with the company to address them.

The feds have lately been hectoring Google about paid ads not being clearly distinguished from search results and now states are piling on with complaints ...

FTC talks tough to Google about paid search results

Failing to clearly distinguish paid from natural results could be deceptive, agency warns

Google, not exactly known for its journalistic expertise, has lately been lecturing newspapers and other news outlets about its objections to paid content on their web pages but now Google and the other big search engines are getting some sterner advice from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

This raises the question of which is scarier -- "advice" from a search engine that could put you out of business by dropping your site to the bottom of its search results or a stiff letter from a federal agency that could spend years investigating your operations.  

Be that as it may, the FTC warns the search engines that they must "clearly and prominently" distinguish paid advertising from "natural" search results, referred to for some reason as "organic" results by the technorati, saying that it is getting harder and harder for consumers to tell the difference.

Failing to do so "could be a deceptive practice," the consumer protection agency said. It called for "visual cues, labels, or other techniques to effectively distinguish advertisements, in order to avoid misleading consumers."

Growing tendency

The FTC said that over the last year or so, there has been a growing tendency for search engines to put paid listings above "natural" search results, causing users to think the ads are objective, unpaid search results.

Last year, Google revised its Shopping search service so that it includes only paid listings, thereby making it possible that consumers will not be shown the very best deals on a given item. The only indication that this is the case is a bit of grey text that says "sponsored" at the top right.

No doubt Google would be unhappy if news sites began writing only about politicians who paid to have stories written about them but it does not seem to feel any compunction about presenting only sponsored shopping information to consumers. 

"Consumers ordinarily expect that natural search results are included and ranked based on relevance to a search query, not based on payment from a third party," the FTC said in its letter. "Including or ranking a search result in whole or in part based on payment is a form of advertising. To avoid the potential for deception, consumers should be able to easily distinguish a natural search result from advertising that a search engine delivers."

Besides Google, the letter went to Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Blekko, DuckDuckGo and 17 specialized search engines. Google dominates search engine advertising with about 74% of the $17 billion spent annually on ads and paid search results.

In January, the FTC wound up a two-year antitrust probe of Google, saying it found no basis for action.

Google, not exactly known for its journalistic expertise, has lately been lecturing newspapers and other news outlets about its objections to paid content ...

Gmail gets a new inbox, with tabs to reduce clutter

Google tries to get out in front of startups offering email management tools

Perhaps feeling pressure from startups like Mailbox, Google is launching a redesigned Gmail today, trying once again to relieve inbox clutter and, perhaps, to promote Google+, something it now does incessantly.

Three years ago, Google added the Priority Inbox feature, which tried to bring some order to cluttered inboxes by sorting messages based on their perceived importance. How successful that was varies widely from one user to the next, we suspect.

But this time, Google says it has it right.

"We get a lot of different types of email: messages from friends, social notifications, deals and offers, confirmations and receipts, and more," said . "All of these emails can compete for our attention and make it harder to focus on the things we need to get done. Sometimes it feels like our inboxes are controlling us, rather than the other way around."

"Today, Gmail is getting a brand new inbox on desktop and mobile that puts you back in control using simple, easy organization," Gilad said, explaining that the new interface groups emails into categories that appear as different tabs -- Primary, Social, Promotions and Updates, among others.

On Android phones and on Gmail for iPhone and iPad, the Primary tab will appear as the default.

If you don't like the new options, you can switch back to basic view, or make adjustments when the Configure Inbox option appears in your Settings tab, Gilad said. 

The changes are being rolled out gradually, so it may be a few weeks before all users see the new format. 

Perhaps feeling pressure from startups like Mailbox and Sparrow, Google is launching a redesigned Gmail today, trying once again to relieve inbox clutter a...

Report says feds taking another look at Google antitrust issues

This time around, it's Google's advertising dominance that's being scrutinized

Reuters is reporting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may be in the early stages of another antitrust investigation into Google, this time focusing on the search giant's advertising practices.

The news service quotes unnamed sources as saying that the probe involves Google's 2007 purchase of DoubleClick, a purchase that basically provided Google's full-scale entry into display -- or banner --  advertising, supplementing its contextual text-based ads.

Other advertising companies have been complaining to the FTC that Google uses the leverage it gained with the DoubleClick purchase to push advertisers into using some of its other services.

Google is the No. 1 player in the $15 billion U.S. online display ad market with a 15% share. Facebook is close behind with 14%.

The Reuters report said that the supposed investigation is still in its early stages and Google has not been formally notified or asked to produce any documents.

Google is still enmeshed with European regulators and has reportedly offered to modify its search protocols to satisfy some of their concerns.

Earlier FTC probe

It was just four months ago that the FTC wrapped up a long-running antitrust probe of Google, saying that the "facts just weren't there" to support charges that it used its search dominance to display its products at the expense of other companies.

Pressed by reporters at a news conference, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said that by a 5-0 vote, the bipartisan commission agreed that it had not found evidence that Google search results were purposely biased to unfairly promote its own products.

Leibowitz said the commission had "examined 9 million pages of documents, interviewed numerous industry participants and took sworn testimony of key Google executives." 

Leibowitz conceded that while "some evidence suggested Google was trying to eliminate competition" through changes in the format of its search results and  frequent tweaking of its search algorithms, the commission had concluded that "Google's primary reason for changing the look and feel was to improve the user experience."

"Tellingly, many of Google's rivals engaged in many of the same design changes," Leibowitz noted.

Then-FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz says in January 2013 the agency found no compelling antitrust evidence against GoogleReutersis reporting that the Federal Tr...

What happens when you die? Google will help you decide

The Mean Time Between Failure awaits us all; Google helps us prepare for it

What happens when you die? We're not talking theology here or trying to sell you life insurance. No, the question -- a thorny one, you must admit -- is what happens to your computer files and accounts when you leave the bricks-and-mortar world.

Actually, we're supposed to call them your "digital assets." It sounds better and it is more descriptive (kind of like "cremains"), since most of us store a lot of stuff in the cloud as well as on our hard drives.

In the event of your demise, figuring out what happens to all that information can be a huge headache for your heirs. Many, if not most, online services will not release user IDs and passwords to your survivors without making them jump through various hoops. At the very least, they will probably have to supply a copy of your death certificate. 

To the rescue comes Google, which has been known to have a few other good ideas. It is launching a new feature that makes it easier for you to instruct Google on what should happen to your digital assets when you die or become incapacitated.

The feature is called Inactive Account Manager and it is now available on  your Google Account settings page.

"You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason," said Andreas Tuerk, Google Product Manager on the company's blog.

"For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity," Tuerk wrote. "Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube."

Tuerk said that before Google takes any action, it will send a text message to your cellphone and an email to the secondary address you’ve provided.

So keep those smartphone batteries charged and keep your email addresses up to date. You don't want your stuff to be deleted before you are.

What happens when you die? We're not talking theology here or trying to sell you life insurance. No, the question -- a thorny one, you must admit -- is wha...

Google settles suit with states over Wi-Spy scandal

The company's Street View cars eavesdropped on unsecured wi-fi networks

In a less than resounding settlement, 39 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to split $7 million from Google as a token penalty for its Street View mapping cars eavesdropping on unsecured wi-fi networks a few years ago.

“While the $7 million is significant, the importance of this agreement goes beyond financial terms," said Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. "Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This agreement recognizes those rights and ensures that Google will not use similar tactics in the future to collect personal information without permission from unsuspecting consumers,” 

Google's Street View cars were equipped with antennae and software that the company acknowledged collected network identification information for use in future geolocation services. At the same time, Google collected and stored the content of Internet communications being transmitted over those unsecured business and personal wireless networks.

Google has always maintained that it was unaware the data was being collected. It has since disabled the equipment used to collect the payload data from the Street View vehicles.

Wi-Spy scandal wraps up

The agreement with the states appears to be the final chapter in the so-called Wi-Spy scandal, which has been a source of embarrassment for Google and consternation for privacy advocates for years.

While Google has always maintained the eavesdropping was accidental, it hasn't exactly won plaudits for its cooperation with investigators. The FCC  fined Google $25,000 in 2012 for willfully obstructing the FCC’s investigation into the incident.

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, last year. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

Other key elements of the agreement with the states require Google to run an employee training program about privacy and confidentiality of user data and continue the program for at least 10 years. Google must also conduct a public service announcement campaign to help educate consumers about steps they may take to better secure their personal information while using wireless networks.

States participating in the settlement are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. 

In a less than resounding settlement, 39 states and the District of Columbia have agreed to split $7 million from Google as a token penalty for its Street ...

Google prepares to edge out auto sites, keep car buyers on its search pages

Could be very bad news for Cars.com, Edmunds.com, Autotrader.com

Not too long ago, there was a search engine named Google. You could use it to find things and then go look at them. For example, if you wanted to buy a car, you could run a search and find the websites that had the car you were looking for.

This helped businesses like Cars.com, Autotrader.com and Edmunds.com  prosper and grow.

But what Google giveth, Google eventually taketh away, as just about every business sector has learned by now. And it appears that online car sites are about to be the latest to learn this sometimes bitter lesson.

Since last summer, Google has been experimenting with running its own car-listing service in the San Francisco area, allowing consumers to browse dealers' inventory and check prices without leaving Google's pages.

That pilot is now about to be extended throughout California and, presumably, into other states. Google did something similar with travel information last year. You can now check flights from SFO to IAD, for example, and get an instant answer right on Google's search page.

This has perhaps not been a good thing for Expedia, Kayak, et. al. but we haven't heard any consumers complaining. For one thing, the results are rendered instanteously, without the lengthy waits would-be travelers used to encounter. For another, they appear to be objective -- not favoring one carrier or agent over another, something that isn't necessarily true with many travel sites.

Come on down ...

Of course, it's not like Google will be selling cars directly. You'll still have to go to a dealer or the individual who's trying to sell what you're hoping to buy, at least for now.

And it's not like this is something completely new. Dealers say that more than 90 percent of car buyers begin their shopping online and something like two out of every three visitors who wander onto a dealership's website get there through a Google search.

According to Automotive News, dealers who sign up with Google will be able to  list their new-vehicle inventories with no upfront or monthly fees. They will, however, pay Google for the leads they get. As with all things Google, dealers will have to bid for placement in the results. It's thought the average per-lead fee will be around $15. 

Not too long ago, there was a search engine named Google. You could use it to find things and then go look at them. For example, if you wanted to buy a car...

Google Says It Will Add Do Not Track Option ... Finally

Dead-last in the privacy derby, Google drags its feet all the way

Ever so grudgingly, Google is adding a "do not track" option to its Chrome browser by the end of the year. There's been a lot of foot-dragging by everybody but Google has managed to come in dead last. Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer already offer the do-not-track option. Microsoft even makes it the default.

Google and other Internet dynamos agreed in February to support the idea but it took some serious jaw-boning by the White House to get them to reluctantly get on board.

The White House had called for Congress to pass a "consumer privacy bill of rights" that would give consumers more control over the personal data that Internet companies collect about them.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama in February. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy.

Not very excited

Google still is making no pretense that it's excited about giving consumers a little bit of private time.

"We undertook to honor an agreement on DNT that the industry reached with the White House early this year," a spokesman for the company said in a statement emailed to the Los Angeles Times. "To that end we’re making this setting visible in our Chromium developer channel, so that it will be available in upcoming versions of Chrome by year’s end."

Big G isn't saying when the option will available but says that when it is, consumers will be able to go into Chrome's settings panel and select "Do Not Track."

No guarantee

So then Google will flip a big switch in the Cloud that turns off tracking, right? Well, not exactly. Rather, it will send a message to every website the consumer visits saying that the consumer doesn't want to be stalked. It's then up to the individual sites to follow through. Or not follow, to be more precise.

This is the same methodology used by other search engines and many consumer and privacy advocates worry that unscrupulous advertisers will simply ignore the notification and continue tracking consumers around the Web.

By instilling a false sense of security, the do not track option could make matters worse, these advocates fear. 

Ever so grudgingly, Google says it is adding a "do not track" option to its Chrome browser by the end of the year. There's been a lot of foot-dragging by e...

Google Buys Frommer's Travel Guides

Guidebooks have lined the pockets of travelers for 50 years

Hoping to juice up its local reviews, Google is buying the Frommer's Travel brand from publisher John Wiley & Sons. 

Google said it hasn't decided whether it will continue to publish the printed Frommer's guidebooks, which have lined the pockets of generations of world travelers, tramps and tourists.

It's possible the Frommer's brand will be meled with Zagat, which Google bought in September 2011. 

With the Frommer purchase, Google hopes to expand its local reviews beyond restaurants, Zagat's primary focus. Frommer's also reviews hotels and includes information about transportation options and local attractions in thousands of cities worldwide.

Frommer's series of guidebooks began in 1957 with the publication of Arthur Frommer's book, Europe on $5 a Day. It expanded to more than 350 guidebooks and a Web site that covers more than 3,500 destinations.

Motorola cuts

Meanwhile, Google says it will cut 20% of the workforce of Motorola Mobility, the money-losing cellphone maker it bought for $12.5 billion last year, and shut nearly a third of Motorola's offices worldwide. Two-thirds of the jobs are outside the U.S.

"These changes are designed to return Motorola's mobile devices unit to profitability," Google said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Hoping to juice up its local reviews, Google is buying the Frommer's Travel brand from publisher John Wiley & Sons. Google said it hasn't decide...

Google Pays $22.5 Million for Privacy Violations

Google misrepresented privacy assurance to Safari users

As expected, Google will pay $22.5 million to settle federal charges that it disregarded consumers' privacy settings on Apple's Safari Web browser. It is the largest civil penalty ever assessed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating a Commission order. 

Perhaps more significantly, in a conference call with reporters, an FTC official said the commission finds it "troubling" that Google says the privacy violation was inadvertent.

Google has said the whole affair was a "mistake" and said it stopped placing unauthorized cookies on users' machines as soon as the Wall Street Journal published a story about it.

"I think that defense raises red flags to regulators," said David Vladeck, Director of Consumer Protection at the FTC. "Their intent is immaterial."

Like a police officer talking to a motorist who argues he didn't know there was a speed limit, Vladeck spelled it out: "Their intent is immaterial. It's troubling to us that Google says they didn't know it was going on. A company like Google is the steward of personal information from hundreds of millions of people and they have to do better."

Google has never publicly apologized to consumers who were misled.

Cookies disabled

In addition to the civil penalty announced today, the order also requires Google to disable all the tracking cookies it had said it would not place on consumers’ computers.  

In the conference call, James Kohm, Associate Director for Enforcement at the Commission, said that most of the illicit cookies have already been removed but said that under the terms of the order, Google has until February 15, 2014 to remove all of them.

"The extra time is because they can only remove the cookies when somebody visits a site in their ad network," Kohm said. "The stragglers are those who haven't gotten to those places yet."

Kohm said that, besides an outside auditor, the FTC has "a very active monitoring compliance program." 

Wired was wrong

Kohn and Vladeck disputed published reports in Wired magazine and elsewhere that the FTC did not know of the issue until a Stanford researcher went public with his discovery of the privacy violations.

"Don't believe everything you read in magazines. We were aware of this problem very early on," Vladeck said. "We were investigating this well before any publication in the Wall Street Journal or otherwise. The Wired article was wrong.

"We were on this shortly after this problem arose," Vladeck insisted. "It takes time to build a case that will stand up in court. As a law enforcement agency, we operate under legal constraints and our investigations are not public."

Long rap sheet

It's the latest in a long series of "accidental" privacy violations by Google. It pales in comparison to the so-called "Wi-Spy" case back in 2010, when Google admitted it invaded Wi-Fi networks and downloaded private data from those networks as its fleet of gadget-encumbered cars crept through neighborhoods around the world, collecting information for its street-mapping project.

The commission in April fined Google $25,000, saying it was obstructing the agency's investigation of the matter. Google, as usual, said any such obstruction was inadvertent. It didn't apologize. 

Last year, in a settlement with the Justice Department, Google agreed to pay a $500 million penalty for promoting and advertising unlawful sales of prescription drugs through its ubiquitous AdWords program. It said its role in establishing a global network of illicit drug sites was unintentional.

Heavy price

Responding to questions about whether the penalty was adequate, Vladeck said Google was "paying a heavy price."

"$22.5 million may not seem like a lot of money to Google but given the magnitude and duration of this violation, we think it's quite substantial," he said. "We have Google under order for another 19 years and this sends a message that the FTC isn't kidding around," he said.

Ads, ads, ads

Google, the developer of the world’s most popular Internet search engine, generates billions of dollars in revenues annually from selling online advertising services, including the delivery of targeted ads online.  Cookies are small pieces of computer text that are used to collect information from computers and can be used to serve targeted ads to consumers.  By placing a tracking cookie on a user’s computer, an advertising network can collect information about the user’s web-browsing activities and use that information to serve online ads targeted to the user’s interests or for other purposes.

In its complaint, the FTC charged that for several months in 2011 and 2012, Google placed a certain advertising tracking cookie on the computers of Safari users who visited sites within Google’s DoubleClick advertising network, although Google had previously told these users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking, as a result of the default settings of the Safari browser used in Macs, iPhones and iPads. 

According to the FTC’s complaint, Google specifically told Safari users that because the Safari browser is set by default to block third-party cookies, as long as users do not change their browser settings, this setting “effectively accomplishes the same thing as [opting out of this particular Google advertising tracking cookie].”  In addition, Google represented that it is a member of an industry group called the Network Advertising Initiative, which requires members to adhere to its self-regulatory code of conduct, including disclosure of their data collection and use practices.

Broken promise

Despite these promises, the FTC charged that Google placed advertising tracking cookies on consumers’ computers, in many cases by circumventing the Safari browser’s default cookie-blocking setting.  Google exploited an exception to the browser’s default setting to place a temporary cookie from the DoubleClick domain. 

Because of the particular operation of the Safari browser, that initial temporary cookie opened the door to all cookies from the DoubleClick domain, including the Google advertising tracking cookie that Google had represented would be blocked from Safari browsers.

The FTC charged that Google’s misrepresentations violated a settlement it reached with the agency in October 2011, which barred Google from – among other things – misrepresenting the extent to which consumers can exercise control over the collection of their information.  The earlier settlement resolved FTC charges that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its privacy promises when it launched its social network, Google Buzz. 

As expected, Google will pay $22.5 million to settle federal charges that it disregarded consumers' privacy settings on Apple's Safari Web browser. It...

Ooops! Google Admits It Didn't Delete "Mistakenly" Gathered Private Data After All

Revelation stirring up a tempest in Europe; U.S. reaction muted so far

Remember all that data Google said its Street View cars had "mistakenly" gobbled up from open Wi-Fi networks a few years ago? Well, now it turns out that Google was -- you guessed it -- mistaken when it said had deleted all the data.

Turns out it still has quite a bit of it, AllThingsD reported today. Google made the admission in an email to the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which in turn released it to the public.

None of this is doing much for Googe's street cred.

"Everything Google has said about 'Street View' has been misleading, even the name! Because of course the cars did not simply capture images of streets, but also intercepted private wi-fi communications," said Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington.

Perhaps even more surprising than the revelation that the data still exists, Google said that if local authorities want to look at the data before it's deleted (again), they're welcome to do so.

Keep in mind the data in question is stuff that Google's Street View cars collected from uprotected networks in homes and offices between 2008 and 2010. It includes emails, documents, photos and whatever else businesses and individuals had on machines connected to their unprotected networks.

Collecting all that private data was seen as extremely offensive by privacy adocates. One must wonder how those privacy advocates will feel when they learn that Google is now offering to hand the private data over to local governments.

Cause for concern

In London, the ICO -- calling the latest revelation "cause for concern" -- demanded to examine the data “immediately” to look for evidence that the privacy breach is  more extensive than Google had originally claimed. 

Rotenberg said the ICO now has a chance to dig a bit deeper than it did the first time around.

"We believe that the ICO failed to conduct an adequate investigation in the first instance, and also that it was a mistake to permit Google to delete the data it had wrongfully obtained," he told ConsumerAffairs.

"Now, the Commission will have the opportunity to examine the data that was seized and pursue a more comprehensive investigation. This is a critical matter," Rotenberg said.

In Ireland, a data protection officer said Google's retention of the data was  ‘‘clearly unacceptable.’’

The latest blunder is so far mostly roiling waters in Europe but is expected to reach American shores shortly, where it will make for even rougher sailing for the Google crew.

Google already faces an ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anti-trust probe that took on new life in May when it was disclosed that the government had hired a top private attorney to manage to case. 

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to the Los Angeles Times report in May. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

Remember all that data Google said it had "mistakenly" gobbled up from open Wi-Fi networks a few years ago? Well, now it turns out that Google was -- you g...

Reports: Google Set to Pay Biggest Fine in FTC History

Search giant reportedly will pay $22 million to settle privacy violation charges

For being such a big company, Google certainly makes a lot of "mistakes," which often have the effect of invading consumers' privacy.  

One of its latest supposed blunders was disregarding consumers' privacy settings on the Safari Web browser used on Apple products. Google insists it never meant to bypass those settings and place cookies on users' machines but is nevertheless said to be ready to pay $22.5 million in penalties to settle an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

While this would be the biggest fine ever levied by the FTC, it is just a few hours worth of revenue to Google but it's another black eye for a company that has at best a spotted record of protecting consumers' privacy.

The report of a settlement comes from The Wall Street Journal, which uncovered and disclosed Google's misdeeds earlier this year. After the Journal told Google about its discovery, Google said it immediately stopped the practice. 

Of course, Google never apologizes for anything and usually insists its privacy violations were inadvertent, accidential, unintentional and so forth. Which, of course, doesn't mean they didn't happen.

Wi-Spy

You might recall back in 2010, when Google admitted invaded Wi-Fi networks and downloaded private data from those networks as its fleet of gadget-encumbered cars crept through neighborhoods around the world, collecting information for its street-mapping project.

That, Google said, was inadvertent but in April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined Google $25,000, saying it was obstructing the FCC's investigation of the affair. Google said it didn't mean to.

Last year, in a settlement with the Justice Department, Google agreed to pay a $500 million penalty for promoting and advertising unlawful sales of prescription drugs through its ubiquitous AdWords program. It said its role in establishing a global network of illicit drug sites was unintentional.

Then there was Buzz, Google's ill-fated social network Google. The FTC -- and many others -- complained that Google deceptively used information it had already collected to establish accounts for consumers and string together data about them. Google said it was accidental and promised -- through a consent decree -- not to do it again. It also agreed to 20 years of privacy audits and said it would strengthen its privacy protection practices.

Google+

Though the Buzz didn't last long, Google is currently having another go at the social media game, with Google+, which sort of cobbles together many of the settings and much of the data from other Google sites and services. Sound familiar?

This time around, Google is hoping to stay out of trouble. It modified its privacy policy in advance of cranking up Google+. The changes make it harder for users to stay anonymous and also make it harder -- much harder -- for individuals to keep their private and public lives separate, something that's quite important to people whose jobs put them and their families at risk of dirty tricks or worse. That was probably inadvertent though, don't you think?

However, Google is still operating under terms of the consent decree it signed after the Buzz affair and the FTC could conceivably impose additional penalties if the Safari escapade is deemed a violation of the decree.

The $22.5 million penalty has not been officially announced and the Journal's report said the settlement is still being negotiated. Once Google agrees to it, it must still be approved by the FTC commissioners.

For being such a big company, Google certainly makes a lot of "mistakes," which often have the effect of invading consumers' privacy. ...

Consumer Watchdog Isn't Happy About Google's Self-Driving Vehicles

Wonders if Google will track users around real, as well as virtual, highways

As previously reported, Google's self-driving car has been recently approved to be tested on California and Nevada highways, but not everyone is pleased about it.

Consumer Watchdog, a California non-profit, said the phantom cars shouldn't have access to U.S. roads without privacy protections being set in place, as Google has been known to store the personal information of its users.

A letter written to California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, from both Watchdog President Jamie Court, and John M. Simpson, the agency's Privacy Project Director, said:

"Without appropriate regulations, Google’s vehicles will be able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about the use of those vehicles. How will it be used? Just as Google tracks us around the Information Superhighway, it will now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway."

The letter continued:

"Consumers enthusiastically adopted the new technology of the Internet. What we were not told was that our use of the Information Superhighway would be monitored and tracked in order to personalize corporate marketing and make Google a fortune. Now that Google is taking to the freeways, we must prevent inappropriate collection and storage of data about our personal movements and environment before we allow Google’s robots to take to the roads and report back to the Googleplex."

The California based non profit group also says that Google has done a terrible job, when it comes to letting the public know its full intentions, in terms of how it really plans to use its new technological inventions, and pointed to past cases like the Wi-Spy scandal , when Google was accused of storing users emails, passwords and other private info.

"Google claims its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible. However, when it comes to its operations and plans, it is a black box. We believe Google’s actions demonstrate that it cannot be taken at its word," the letter stated.

"Consider the Wi-Spy scandal," the letter added, "the largest wiretapping effort ever, in which Google’s Street View cars sucked up e-mails, passwords and other data from private Wi-Fi networks in 30 countries around the world. Google kept changing its story and still has not come clean. The FCC fined the company $25,000 for obstructing its investigation of the incident. Google initially said the wire-tapping was the job of a rogue engineer, but the FCC has found that, in fact, the company was well aware of the ongoing Wi-Spying activity."

Jumped the gun

Consumer Watchdog also believes that state officials jumped the gun in passing the S.B.1298 bill, which allows the self-driving car to be legally road tested.

The agency's chief concern is the state did not take into consideration just how Google plans to use its storing of information in its self-driving cars, and by the time state officials put  privacy protection orders in place, Google would have already stored buckets of personal information.

"Sadly, the bill provides no privacy protection for the users of the coming technology. The bill should be amended to ban all data collection by autonomous cars. While we don’t propose to limit the ability of the cars to function by communicating as necessary with satellites and other devices, the collection and retention of data for marketing and other purposes should be banned. Unless the bill is amended, once again society will be forced to play catch-up in dealing with the impact of the privacy-invading aspects of a new technology."

More news concerning the back and fourth between Consumer Watchdog, state officials, and Google will certainly be forthcoming. Stay tuned.

As previously reported, Google's self-driving car has been recently approved to be tested on California highways, but not everyone is pleased about it...

Google Wi-Spy Scandal Heats Up

What did Google know? And when did it know it?

Zardoz

In its relatively short lifespan, Google has turned into a real-life Zardoz, the all-knowing stone head that dominates a post-apocalyptic Earth in the 1974 science fiction film of the same name. But unlike the openly malevolent Zardoz, Google cloaks itself in a do-no-evil mantle.

But that mantle, like the curtain that shielded the ill-fated Wizard of Oz, may be wearing a bit thin as critics question how much Google knew about the rogue engineer supposedly responsible for Google's gathering of massive payloads of data from private Wi-Fi networks.

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

Google already faces an ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anti-trust probe that took on new life last month when it was disclosed that the government had hired a top private attorney to manage to case. 

Now Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group in California, has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking all documents related to the Commission’s investigation of the Google "Wi-Spy" scandal. The FCC recently fined Google $25,000 for willfully obstructing the FCC’s investigation into how Google’s Street View cars gathered “payload data” from private Wi-Fi networks. 

“The FCC order gives an overview of what happened and shows that others including a senior manager knew – or should have known – about plans to gather messages from private Wi-Fi networks,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The order makes it clear that Google stonewalled and was uncooperative.  That’s why the public needs to see all the documents that are related to the case.”

“Google is paying a $25,000 fine for its noncompliance and is trying to portray the FCC order as exonerating the company.  That is not the case at all,” said Simpson. “The FCC order shows that substantial questions about the Wi-Spy scandal remain unanswered and that is largely because the engineer responsible for writing the code that gathered payload data invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.”

Engineer Doe

The New York Times identified the engineer, known as “Engineer Doe” in the FCC order, as Marius Milner on Tuesday.  On Monday Consumer Watchdog said  “Engineer Doe” should be granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony before a Senate hearing.

The FCC order makes clear that as early as 2007 or 2008 Street View team members had wide access to Milner’s design document and code in which the plan to intercept “payload data” was spelled out.  One engineer reviewed the code line by line, five engineers pushed the code into Street View cars and, according to the FCC, Milner specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting ‘payload data.’  Nonetheless, they all claim they did not learn payload data was being collected until April or May 2010. 

The FCC first released a highly censored version of its order on April 13, 2012.  Consumer Watchdog filed a FIOA request seeking an un-redacted version of the order.  The FCC then sent a letter to Google saying it would have 10 days to justify censoring the order.  Over the weekend Google released a version of the order that omitted only the names of people the FCC interviewed.  Consumer Watchdog has withdrawn the original FOIA request for an uncensored version of the order.

The largely un-redacted version that the Internet giant made available over the weekend shows a troubling a portrait of a company where an engineer could run wild with software code that violates the privacy of tens of millions people worldwide, but the corporate culture of “Engineers First” prevented corporate counsel or other engineers from stopping the privacy violations, Consumer Watchdog said.

The Wi-Spy scandal is still being investigated by a group of more than 30 state attorneys general.  Consumer Watchdog attorneys are counsel for the plaintiffs in a federal class action suit against Google in the Wi-Spy case.

Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group in California, has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Federal Communications Commission (FC...

FCC: Google 'Deliberately Impeded' Spy-Fi Probe

Agency staff, exasperated with foot-dragging, proposes a $25,000 fine

If this were a movie, Google would be the Nixon White House and intrepid Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staffers would be the guys holding clandestine meetings in Washington parking garages, trying to find out what the big secret is. 

But it's not. At least not yet. However, the FCC's investigation into Google's collection of sensitive personal information from wireless networks is starting to closely resemble the kind of political drama that involves stonewalling, witnesses taking the Fifth Amendment and press secretaries releasing innocuous statements. A review of recent history finds such incidents usually end badly for the stonewallers.

This particular epic started a few years ago when Google revealed that cars it was using to map streets for its Street View project were also inadvertently eavesdropping on unencrypted personal and commercial wireless networks, scooping up all kinds of dirt on individuals great and small.  

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated and accepted Google's explanation that the eavesdropping was accidental. Google even said it was "mortified."

But when the FCC tried to follow up on the FTC probe, it was the FCC that was soon mortified -- mortified by how slow Google was to respond to requests for the names of the employees involved and for copies of emails surrounding the incident.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Google at one point said it was be too "time-consuming and burdensome" to find the emails the FCC wanted to see. Since Google operates the world's biggest search engine and routinely scans billions of email messages to match them up with advertisements, the FCC found this explanation particularly unconvincing, according to the Times.

The FCC was again stymied when it asked for the identity of the engineer who was responsible for the Street View project. Sorry, said Google, the employee wanted to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

And besides, said Google, making the employees available would "serve no useful purpose," the Times reported.

Google's response

In a masterpiece of non-responsive rhetoric, worthy of being tagged as "inoperative" by onetime Nixon aide Ron Nessen, a Google spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal: "We worked in good faith to answer the FCC's questions throughout the inquiry, and we are pleased that they have concluded that we complied with the law." 

The FCC has said that so far it has not found that Google did anything illegal in collecting the information. The proposed $25,000 fine is simply for impeding the investigation, but it doesn't do much to dispel a growing feeling in Washington that the online privacy issue may be worthy of more investigation.

Google has said it is "profoundly sorry" for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted wireless networks. "As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," a company spokesman said back in 2011. "We did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services.”

In January 2011, Google reached an agreement with a 40-state coalition over a subpoena for the so-called "payload" data. The company had said then that it wanted to delete the data but was barred from doing so by the subpoena issued by then-Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, now a Democratic Congressman. 


If this were a movie, Google would be the Nixon White House and intrepid Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staffers would be the guys holding clandes...

Google Thinks Its Glasses Can Make Reality Really Really Real

Why settle for plain old reality when you could have augmented reality?

Yesterday it was flying cars. Today it's Google Glasses -- thin wraparound shades that give new meaning to "in your face."

Googlers say the new glasses will not only display maps, information, ads and other stuff we already see all day long but will also snap photos, accept voice commands and do just about everything except help you cross the street.

Oh wait, maybe they'll do that too. We're not quite sure, since the glasses aren't for sale yet.

Blinders

Actually, we'd better hope the glasses will help you cross the street. The side frames -- which house the electronics -- appear to be so thick they completely obliterate the wearer's peripheral vision. If you've ever tried wearing really thick frames, you'll know how annoying this is to you and those around you, the people you're constantly bumping into.

And by the way, we have checked our sources and today is definitely April 5, not April 1.  So maybe this Google Glasses thing really is for real? It's in The New York Times, so it must be true. There's nothing about it on Google's official blog, though, which instead is headlining yet another too-weird-to-be-true story about Google developing a self-driving NASCAR race car. 

Oh wait, that NASCAR story.  It's an April Fool's prank, even though it's dated March 31. Good one, Google. These are the people who run Google News. Keep that in mind for future reference.

But back to those glasses for a minute. Google released a video yesterday that showed a man wandering around the streets of New York City, talking to unseen friends, getting directions out of thin air and chatting with a remarkably beautiful girlfriend only he could see.

It's kind of hard to see what's so nifty about that. The sidewalks of New York are full of people who fit that description. Is it really necessary to create more of them?

Yesterday it was flying cars. Today it's Google Glasses -- thin wraparound shades that give new meaning to "in your face."Googlers say the new glasses wi...

What Does Google's New Privacy Policy Really Mean?

A communications expert weighs in

For weeks now Google has displayed a link on its pages to its new privacy policy, urging people to read it, adding “this stuff matters.”

Whether you've read it or not, the new policy goes into effect today and some privacy advocates are not at all happy about it. In a nutshell, the new policy means Google will track your activity across all of its services – Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, and Google Search.

“The goal for the new Google privacy policy is to have one policy to cover all of Google’s products and services, rather than separate policies for varying services,” said Lee Humphreys, Cornell assistant professor of communication. “Google’s intention is to create a more integrated user experience and to simplify their privacy policy for their products. Under the new system, Google will be combining user data across their various services, whereas before certain data was kept separate."

Skeptical?

It all sound harmless enough. But should consumers feel skeptical about the new rules?

“Maybe,” Humphreys said. “The biggest concern about the privacy changes is that it will not be clear to users exactly what kinds of data are collected and integrated, and what their options are for opting-out of having their information collected and tracked."

Humphreys has her own reservations about the new policy. She said she understands that Google's objective is to refine the data about individual users so that ads can be more directly targeted. But she would like consumers to be able to control the personal data that any company collects about them.

She says Google may give a consumer the means to opt out, but they have to secretly be hoping that most people don't use it – otherwise Google won't be able to deliver the targeted ads it has promised advertisers.

How to protect yourself

Fortunately there are ways consumers can protect themselves online.

“Users should sign out of services and websites when they’re done, particularly if they’re using a public computer,” Humphreys said. “Another thing users can do is to clear their history and cookies, a technology that websites use to track where we go on the web, on their Internet browsers like Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. Users should also be aware that what they do on the web is tracked.”

Humphreys concedes that tracking often makes the web more useable and navigable. We find what we're looking for faster. The trade off, of course, is that your information is collected.

“If we don’t want our information collected, we need to educate ourselves about how to opt-out of these systems,"Humphreys said. 

Google's new privacy policy...

Attorneys General Challenge Google's New Privacy Policy

New policy exposes users to identity theft and fraud, 36 AGs argue

The attorneys general of 36 states are challenging Google's new privacy policy, warning that it exposes users to identity theft and fraud.
The policy goes into effect on March 1 and allows Google to store richer personal information profiles and no longer allows consumers to keep various parts of their online experience separate.
“This is a major change and Google should give consumers the ability to opt out of a policy that could jeopardize their privacy,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said. “We believe consumers deserve a full accounting of how this new privacy policy may impact them and be given a meaningful opportunity to avoid it.”
Others expressing concerns about the new privacy policy include:
Google has also been taking heat after a Wall Street Journal story revealed that it used "tricks"to get around privacy controls in Apple's Safari browser, widely used on iPhones and Apple computers. Google's new "personalized search" has also raised privacy advocates' hackles.
The 36 attorneys general sent a letter to Google that oulines their concerns about the privacy policy. Under the new policy, Google gives itself the freedom to combine users’ personal information from services like Web History and YouTube with all other Google products.

Impossible to avoid

The ramifications of the new privacy policy will be virtually impossible to avoid for millions of consumers who already use Android-powered smartphones, currently estimated to be 50 percent of the national smartphone market. 
Android users will have to log in to Google to activate most of the functions on their devices.  They will also have to choose between either frequently logging in and out to avoid Google’s consolidation of their data or replacing their smartphones at great personal expense.
The attorneys general fear the consolidated personal data profiles will be a tantalizing target for hackers and privacy thieves.
“Those consumers who remain in the Google ecosystem may be making more of their personal information vulnerable to attack from hackers and identity thieves," the AGs said in their letter to Google. "Our offices litigate cases of identity fraud with regularity and it seems plain to us that Google’s privacy policy changes, which suggest your company’s intent to create richer personal data profiles, pose the risk of much more damaging cases of identity theft and fraud when that data is compromised, a risk that will grow as instances of computer hacking grow."
The AGs say they recognize many consumers will welcome the consolidation and sharing their personal information and data across multiple platforms.  Unfortunately, many more consumers will either dislike the consolidation or not realize the potential harm that comes from it.
Given the serious concerns expressed on behalf of those consumers, the AGs have requested a meeting with Google Inc. CEO Larry Page as soon as possible.
The states and territories signing on to the letter are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, and Washington.
The attorneys general of 367 states are challenging Google's new privacy policy, warning that it exposes users to identity theft and fraud. The po...

WSJ: Google Bypassed Apple Safari Privacy Settings

"Google lied," consumer advocacy group charges as it calls for immediate FTC action

The Wall Street Journal reports today that Google and other advertising networks have used "tricks" to get around privacy controls in Apple's Safari browser, widely used on iPhones and Apple computers -- and a consumer group that has been sharply critical of Google is calling for a federal investigation.

The Journal says that by using special code, the companies were able to monitor users who had set their controls to block such monitoring. The newspaper said Google disabled the code after it was contacted by the Journal reporters working on the story.

The Consumer Watchdog group asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google violated a previous privacy agreement with the FTC by tracking cookies in a way that circumvents default privacy settings in Apple's Safari browser.

In a letter to the FTC, the group said the FTC should take "immediate action against Google for using unfair and deceptive practices in violation of Section Five of the Federal Trade Commission Act in the way that it has violated peoples online privacy choices and falsely advised them about how to make opt-out choices."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the relevation "bad news for the company" and said, "It’s time for Google to acknowledge that it can do a better job of respecting the privacy of Web users.

"One way that Google can prove itself as a good actor in the online privacy debate is by providing meaningful ways for users to limit what data Google collects about them," EFF said in a blog posting on its site. "Specifically, it’s time that Google's third-party web servers start respecting Do Not Track requests, and time for Google to offer a built-in Do Not Track option," .

Contradicted instructions

The Journal said the use of the code "appeared to contradict some of Google's own instructions to Safari users on how to avoid tracking."

"Google was lying," said John M. Simpson, privacy policy director for Consumer Watchdog. "It was in fact circumventing the privacy choice and setting ... tracking cookies.

"Until recently, one Google site told Safari users they could rely on Safari's privacy settings to prevent tracking by Google. Google removed that language from the site Tuesday night," the Journal said.

Google disputed the Journal's report.

"The Journal mischaracterizes what happened and why. We used known Safari functionality to provide features that signed-in Google users had enabled. It's important to stress that these advertising cookies do not collect personal information."

The Journal said the Google code was initially spotted by Stanford researcher Jonathan Mayer. The Journal said it hired an independent technical adviser, Ashkan Soltani, who it said "found that ads on 22 of the top 100 websites installed the Google tracking code on a test computer, and ads on 23 sites installed it on an iPhone browser."

Once the code was activated, it could reach beyond those Web sites and enable Google to track users across the "vast majority" of sites.

The other advertising companies using the code were Vibrant Media Inc., Media Innovation Group LLC and PointRoll Inc., the Journal said.

Children endangered

The latest charges come just one day after the Federal Trade Commission said a survey found children's privacy was being endangered by lax oversight of mobile apps provided through Google's Android Apps Store and Apple's App Store.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said it was time for the apps industry to "wake up" and act responsibly.

The study found that online app stores are providing almost no information about what information is gathered from children, how it is used, who has access to it and what steps parents can take to keep their children safe.

The report found that in 2008, smartphone users could choose from about 600 available apps. Today there are more than 500,000 apps in the Apple App Store and 380,000 in the Android Market.

"Consumers have downloaded these apps more than 28 billion times, and young children and teens are increasingly embracing smartphone technology for entertainment and educational purposes" but neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared, or who will have access to it, the survey found.

Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.'s Web browser on...

Privacy Group Sues FTC Over Google Privacy Changes

FTC isn't doing its job, public interest group claims

The Federal Trade Commission dropped the ball by letting Google amend its privacy policy, a public interest group claims in a federal lawsuit.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) claims the government failed to enforce its 2011 consent order that barred Google from "misrepresenting the company's privacy practices, requires the company to obtain users' consent before disclosing personal data, and requires the company to develop and comply with a comprehensive privacy program," Courthouse News Service reported.

"In 2012, Google announced that it would change its terms of service for current users of Google services and consolidate users' personal information across more than 60 Google services in clear violation of its prior commitments to the Federal Trade Commission," the group argues.

The mounting opposition to Google's new privacy policy is taking a toll on consumers' opinion of the once universally admired company, according to a ConsumerAffairs.com sentiment analysis of about 270,000 consumer comments on the topic.

Net positive sentiment hasn't exceeded mid-40% territory during the last year and has dipped to nearly 0 at times.  Most recently, it is hovering around 20%. 

Blue line shows net sentiment

Buzz

Those commitments stemmed from concern over Google's privacy policy after the widely-panned 2010 launch of Google's social network, Buzz. EPIC complained then that Google was using information from its Gmail users "to populate Buzz, a separate and discrete social network service."

EPIC charged in the 2010 case that Google linked users' Gmail data to their Buzz accounts without clearly communicating that the company was making certain personal information public.

Eventually, the FTC found that Google "had launched Buzz through Gmail, and that 'options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective.'"

Consent order

The FTC also found that Google "failed to disclose adequately that consumers' frequent email contacts would become public by default," and that it violated the Safe Harbor Framework between the United States and European Union by "failing to give consumers notice and choice before using their information for a purpose different from that for which it was collected."

The FTC's consent order bars Google from misrepresenting how it maintains personal information and requires the company to get consent before sharing the information. It also requires Google to implement a comprehensive privacy program, submit to independent assessments, and make its privacy-related documents available to the FTC.

EPIC contends that Google's recent announcement of its plan to create a single profile for users of all its services violates the FTC order, but the agency "has thus far failed to take any action regarding this matter, placing the privacy interests of literally hundreds of millions Internet users at grave risk," the group says.

EPIC wants an injunction forcing the FTC to enforce its own consent order.

The Federal Trade Commission dropped the ball by letting Google amend its privacy policy, a public interest group claims in a federal lawsuit.The Electro...

Google's New Privacy Policy Raises Concerns

Anything you do on nearly any Google service is collected and analyzed

Google used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information. Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all the information it has about you.

The new policy means that anything you do on almost any of Google's 60 or so services will affect what you see on other Google services. This raises any number of questions, including:

  • How does it do that? By following you and keeping track of what you do.
  • How do you opt out? You don't.
  • Is it anonymous? Not exactly. 

Basically, Google will now be combining all the personal data you share with any of its products or sites, except for Google Chrome, Google Books and Google Wallet, hoping to create a more comprehensive picture of you.

This means that anytime you’re signed into your Google account, whether on a computer, tablet, or Android phone, Google collects information about your activities and adds it to its growing profile of who you are, what you do and so forth.

Who benefits?

What's the benefit?  Well, the benefit to Google is that it will be able to provide more closely targeted ads, increasing the likelihood of your clicking on one of them and ringing its cash register. 

The benefit to you -- well, that's a little harder to define. Alma Whitten, Google's Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, says on Google's Blog that by integrating all of its information about you, Google will be better able to  “figure[e] out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink.”

Not only that, says Whitten, Google will be able to “provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day” and “ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate.”  

Kind of creepy?

While this perhaps creates some benefits for consumers, it also presents some  possibilities the ACLU of Massachusetts refers to as "creepy."  

For example, if you conduct a search or have an email conversation or watch a YouTube video about a topic you don't want your friends, parents, spouse or significant others to know about, Google's new policy means that your interest in that topic will be a part of your profile and may influence the search results, ads and content suggestions for an indefinite period of time.

Then there's the issue of keeping one's personal and professional lives separate.  There are many among us who use one email address and profile  for professional or job-related activities while keeping a separate identity for private lives.

Doctors routinely shield their personal from their professional information, trying to keep at least a few hours to themselves. Police officers and prosecutors prefer not to make their home address and family information available to murderers and other dangerous criminals. Same for ministers, teachers, journalists and others whose public persona subjects them -- and their families -- to abuse from anonymous strangers.

While there may be ways around this going forward, it appears there's not much to be done about information that's already out there.  Google says it will “replace past names associated with your Google Account so that you are represented consistently across all our services.” 

Government surveillance

What’s more, this data aggregation is not just about what ads you see but creates an even larger treasure chest of personal information for government investigators to rummage through.

Don't think this is something to worry about?  It's worthwhile taking a look at Google's "Transparency Report," which details the thousands of government requests it receives for information about individual consumers.

In the first six months of 2011, Google received 5,950 requests from government agencies in the U.S. seeking data on 11,057 individuals. It complied with 93% of them.

The ACLU is so concerned about this and other online privacy issues that it has launched a campaign called Demand Your dotRights, hoping to organize consumer protests and, presumably, legal action against what it perceives as unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Google used to say its mission was to organize all the world's information.  Now its mission, judging from its new privacy policy, is to organize all ...

WSJ: Google Execs Knew of Illegal Drug Ads

Federal prisoner carried out a sting operation against the search giant

When Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew out of a sting operation conducted by a prison inmate operating under the watchful gaze of federal agents.

The Wall Street Journal tells that tale today, including allegations that Google co-founder Larry Page, now the company's CEO, and other top executives were aware of legal problems with the drug ads. 

Mr. Page knew about the illicit conduct, said Peter Neronha, the U.S. attorney for Rhode Island who led the multiagency federal task force that conducted the sting.

"We simply know from the documents we reviewed and witnesses we interviewed that Larry Page knew what was going on," Neronha said, according to the Journal.

Narcotics, steroids

As the Journal tells it, convicted con artist David Whitaker spent $200,000 of government money to buy ads on Google, promoting narcotics, steroids, human growth hormone and other illegal substances.  Google initially rejected some of the ads but reportedly relented following conversations between Whitaker and Google ad executives.  

Google has long contended that it is not responsible for the actions of its one million advertisers but in the half-billion-dollar settlement, which headed off potential criminal charges against the company, agreed to pay not only its profits on the ads but also the proceeds that flowed from the illegal drug sales.

That, says Neronha, set an important precedent: "Where evidence can be developed that a search engine knowingly and actively assisted advertisers to promote improper conduct, the search engine can be held accountable as an accomplice," the Journal reported.

So is Google taking a more cautious approach in its advertising policies? Not according to some of its critics.

"Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project, after the August settlement.

Perhaps presciently, Simpson cited a study by his group that found Google had become "a leading purveyor of ads by scammers who prey on struggling homeowners."

Bogus mortgage ads

A few months later, in November, under pressure from federal prosecutors, Google shut down bogus mortgage ads from companies that claimed to offer assistance to homeowners who were behind on their mortgage payments and facing foreclosure.

Google acted in November after a federal agency opened a criminal investigation of at least 85 companies that used Google AdWords to sell mortgage modification services. 

"Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said Simpson. "The company cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains. Google must donate the money to aid homeowners who were victimized because of its callous quest for profits."

It's not only Google that profits from ads for illicit, illegal or fraudulent products, of course.  Besides displaying advertisements on its own sites, Google has a vast network of Web sites -- so-called "content partners" -- that display the ads on their sites as well.  (ConsumerAffairs.com is a Google content partner). 

The content partners range from major newspapers like The New York Times to the smallest local news or special interest site.  In fact, thousands of sites have been created -- so-called "Made for AdWords" sites -- that serve no purpose but to show up in search engines and to present site visitors with so little useful information that they are driven to click on the Google ads to escape.

Thus, if Google mounted a truly extensive effort to root out misleading and fraudulent advertisements, it would have an impact not only on Google's revenue but on those of its hundreds of thousands of content partners. 

Just wants to be free?

"Information just wants to be free."  That was the credo of the cyberprophets back when the Internet was just pulling itself together. Like Grateful Dead fans milling around a parking lot, early Internet proponents proclaimed that, at last, information would be freed of corporate influence and society would at last be, well, free.

A decade or two later, information is stolen and redistributed with reckless abandon and search engines -- which were going to be the roadmap to the cybersphere of free information -- are increasingly driven by advertising.

Google still provides information for free to the end user but, increasingly, that information is paid for, with advertising providing 96 percent of Google's 2011 revenue.  

In fact, companies which must constantly find new customers for their products and services now have little choice but to spend, and spend big, with Google.

The No. 1 source of advertising revenue for Google is the finance and insurance industry, which spent $4.0 billion last year, according to WordStream, a search-advertising firm. State Farm spent an estimated $43.7 million on Google AdWords, followed by Progressive at $43.1 million.

Retail and general merchandise was the second-biggest category last year, at $2.8 billion, and travel and tourism at $2.4 billion. Amazon.com spent $55.2 million, and eBay spent an estimated $42.8 million. 

When Google agreed to pay $500 million last August to settle charges it carried ads for illegal drugs, the story that went untold was that the charges grew...

New Gmail Users Get Google+ As Well

New sign-up process requires a Google profile

One reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email address.

Google has added a few steps to the process, requiring new users to create a Google profile along with their new Gmail account.  Oh, and it also gets you a Google+ account, whether you want it or not.

The new sign-up form name, birthday, gender (required for Google+) and mobile phone number (not required).

Google has been going to great lengths to cajole, persuade and outright require users of its various services to sign up for Google+, its attempt to compete with Facebook.  After all, goes the think at the 'plex, there are 350 million Gmail users and "only" 90 million Google+ members, so obviously there's plenty of room for growth, if only the strays can be rounded up and herded into the corral.

While some consumers may see this as annoying or a threat to their privacy, it's not likely Google is going to relax the pressure.  It sees Facebook as a serious threat to its search business and is doing everything it can to make Google+ a serious competitor.

Also, Google's most recent earnings statement came as something of a disappointment to analysts and investors who have become accustomed to huge revenue increases and high profit margins. 

Antitrust worries

Still, there may be trouble ahead.  Bloomberg News reported recently that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has expanded its antitrust investigation of Google to include Google+.

The report comes after Google announced that it would include personal data gathered from Google+ in the results of users' searches, a move that raised the hackles of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

"Google's business practices raise concerns related to both competition and the implementation of the Commission’s consent order," EPIC said, referring to a settlement that the FTC reached with Google that establishes new privacy safeguards for users of all Google products and services and subjects the company to regular privacy audits. Google first confirmed the FTC’s antitrust investigation in June 2011.

EPIC has also been urging the FTC to investigate whether Google uses  Youtube search rankings to give preferential treatment to its own video content over non-Google content. 

One reason people sign up for online email accounts like Gmail and Hotmail is that they're free and easy. Fill in a few blanks and you've got a new email a...

Google's Personalized Search Raising Privacy, Antitrust Concerns

Do you care what your "friends" are saying when you're looking for expert information?

Google's latest tinkering with its search results is causing concern among privacy advocates and online publishers while raising yet another set of antitrust concerns.

The search giant is now providing what it calls "personalized" search, basically meaning it not only searches for keywords that match your search query but also shuffles through comments and postings made by your friends on blogs and social media sites, most particularly Google+.

Aside from usability questions -- do you really care what your online "friends" are saying about trans fat's role in heart disease or do you want an expert opinion -- it raises concerns about whether comments made on Google+ will carry more weight than those made on other sites.

Trust and ...

Google is constantly making changes in its super-secret search algorithm, of course, and we're asked to trust that these changes are all being made to provide even better, more impartial and more timely search results to the end users.

Of course, there's no way to verify that since the process is so secret that it has spawned an entire industry of consultants and soothsayers who claim to know how search results can be slanted to benefit their clients.

Even if these modern versions of the phrenologists who claimed to measure mental acuity by analyzing head bumps are accurate, it raises a question that, as far as we know, Google has never answered: Should authors, reporters and publishers have to pay off probable charlatans in hopes of getting a few degrees of visibility for their efforts?  

There are those who will argue that Search Engine Optimization, as it is grandly known, amounts to little more than the protection rackets that used to plague small merchants and businesspeople back in the days when shakedown artists were real instead of virtual.

Big Brother

Some of this was OK when Google was still a fresh-faced start-up newly emerged from someone's garage in Palo Alto (or was it Mountain View?) but it causes a bit more concern now that Big G has grown into Big Brother.

"Google is an entrenched player trying to fight off its challenger Facebook by using its market dominance in a separate sector," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Los Angeles Times. "I think that should trouble people."

It certainly troubles Rotenberg, who says regulators should take a close look at what goes into Google's new personalized search results to see if there are legitimate privacy and antitrust concerns. Rotenberg says he may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking it to investigate the situation.

He's not alone.  Twitter is publicly complaining that the personalized search results will be less relevant for many users and may harm Google's rivals in the social media and search fields.

Twitter general counsel Alex Macgillivray, who formerly worked at Google, said in a tweet yesterday that Google's search results were being "warped" and Twitter later issued a formal statement saying the changes would be "bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users."

Twitter said many Google users are looking for the latest breaking news.

"Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic," but Twitter said such results would be much harder to find if they must compete with Google+ results and other social media blather.

Ick

Many online news sites and even some traditional news publications are also concerned about the growing influence on search results of Google+, fearing that Google's search results will increasingly be determined by what Google+ members happen to be reading and commenting on rather than by more neutral, objective results.

“Ick. Remember when Google used to be a neutral player that crawled the Whole Dern Web? So sad to see that era pass,” said John Battelle, founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing. “It’s not Google’s fault, entirely, but it’s sad nonetheless.”

Venture capitalist MG Siegler, writing on his blog, summed it up in a one-world headline: “Antitrust+?

“How on Earth is Google going to avoid antitrust inquiries with their new Search+ features announced today?,” he asked. “If Facebook, Twitter, etc., have any decent presence in DC, the ball began rolling a few hours ago. This is the type of case that Senators die for. Google wrapped it in a bow and placed it in one of their laps.”

Google's latest tinkering with its search results is causing concern among privacy advocates and online publishers while also raising yet another set of an...

Under Pressure From Feds, Google Shuts Down Bogus Mortgage Ads

Google says it has suspended deals with more than 500 advertisers

Sometimes Google's "Do no evil" mantra seems to really be shorthand for, "Don't get caught helping others do evil."

For years, Google looked the other way as online pharmacies used its AdWords progam to illegally sell prescripti

on drugs online, often without a prescription or across borders. It recently paid $500 million, one of the largest forfeitures in U.S. history, to settle federal allegations related to the drug ads.

Now that a federal agency is opening a criminal investigation of at least 85 companies that use Google AdWords to sell mortgage modifiction services, Google has seen the light and announced that it is suspending more than 500 advertisers who claim to provide services for troubled homeowners.

Consumer groups have complained for years of the proliferation of ads for scams and outright frauds on Google -- and at least one organization is demanding Google donate its proceeds from the tainted ads to consumers who have lost their homes. 

Consumer Watchdog claims Google processed more than 74,000 monthly searches on the phrase 'stop foreclosure', with ads alongside costing an average of $8.29 per click, for a monthly total of $613,460.00, a figure one knowledgeable Internet executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said was far too low.  

"Turned a blind eye"

"Google should never have published these ads, but its executives turned a blind eye to these fraudsters for far too long because of the substantial revenue such advertising generates," said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project.

"The company cannot be allowed to benefit from these ill-gotten gains. Google must donate the money to aid homeowners who were victimized because of its callous quest for profits."

"Google is highly motivated to turn a blind eye to all sorts of dubious advertising on its search engine because AdWords is such a cash cow," Simpson said.

The feds have now taken up that cry.

“The first place many homeowners turn for help in lowering their mortgage is the Internet through online search engines, and that’s precisely where they are being taken advantage of and targeted,” said Christy Romero, Deputy Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). “Web ads that offer a false sense of hope may not be legitimate and can end up costing homeowners their home."

85 scams

Romero said SIGTARP has initially shut down 85 alleged online mortgage modification scams that prey on vulnerable homeowners through Web banners and other Web advertisements.

SIGTARP, a little-known entity, is charged with investigating mortgage modification schemes in which companies charge struggling homeowners a fee in exchange for false promises of lowering the homeowner’s mortgage through TARP’s housing program known as the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP).

Romero said the agency is "diligently working on every level to stop these frauds, to protect homeowners from being victimized, and to hold accountable criminals who defraud homeowners in connection with HAMP and other TARP programs.”

SIGTARP said it notified Google of a list of Web sites alleged to be fraudulently claiming to assist homeowners with the HAMP mortgage modification process but who were instead scamming distressed homeowners.

The most common schemes included asking homeowners for an up-front fee and telling homeowners to stop paying their mortgage and to cease all contact with their lender. The schemes included diverting mortgage payments to the scammers, transferring property deeds, and releasing sensitive personal financial information.

In some instances, the Web sites claimed to be affiliated with the U.S. government through the use of a government seal or name similar to a government agency.

"Dramatic impact"

Google’s suspension of these advertising relationships will have a "dramatic and immediate impact" on the ability of scam artists to seek out and victimize unwitting homeowners, Romero said.  

Of course, those already victimized by the scams might say the impact would have been a lot more dramatic if the ads had never been allowed to appear in the first place.

Unlike newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, Google imposes few restrictions on advertisers, relying on guidelines that are often more technical than substantive.

The automated AdWords system tries to block certain types of objectionable ads, Google has said, but in most cases there is no actual human review of an advertisement.  

Google and other online ad outlets argue that it would be too expensive for them to manually review ads or vet would-be clients. But not doing so leaves consumers ripe for fleecing, consumer groups have long charged.

Knew as early as 2003

After the pharmacy settlement, Consumer Watchdog said Google was aware as early as 2003 that generally, it was illegal for pharmacies to ship controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States from Canada -- and federal agencies vowed anew to take a more aggressive stance towards fraudulent and predatory advertising online.

“The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable companies who in their bid for profits violate federal law and put at risk the health and safety of American consumers,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney General James M. Cole said in August. 

“This investigation is about the patently unsafe, unlawful, importation of prescription drugs by Canadian on-line pharmacies, with Google’s knowledge and assistance, into the United States, directly to U.S. consumers,” said

Peter F. Neronha, U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, noted that the illegal drug sales and importations were conducted "with Google’s knowledge and assistance," a phrase likely to be heard again in connection with the mortgate modification investigation.

Sometimes Google's "Do no evil" mantra seems to really be shorthand for, "Don't get caught helping others do evil."For years, Google looked the other way...

Google Update Gives Nod to Big Brands, Google's Own Properties

Latest rejiggering of search results raises questions about Big G's objectivity

Big G takes on the content farms in this satiric video

It was just a few weeks ago that we wrote a rather mild little story headlined, "Forget Congress, Google Has Big Public Perception Problems."

We noted that the search engine once applauded for helping consumers find just what they're looking for faces not only an antitrust investigation but a growing public perception that it is using its dominant position to push its own products and squash competitors.

Late last Wednesday, Google implemented the latest update to its search algorithm and by the weekend, we were No. 2 on the latest Big Losers list, having lost more traffic than anyone but Myspace.com, according to statistics from Searchmetrics, which chronicles the ups and down of what's known as search engine optimization (SEO), the techniques sites use to try to stay on top of the search results returned by Google, Bing and the other search engines.

Now, no one is suggesting the trip to the woodshed was intentional but the industry watchers who write about SEO issues are finding it worrisome that while Google-owned properties rose in the latest algorithm update, sites that might be seen as competing with Google fell.

Losers

Here are the top ten losers, as compiled by Searchmetics:

#DomainSEO Visibility 
09/25/2011
SEO Visibility 
10/02/2011
Losing
1
3,139,2782,717,908-421,370
2
447,586100,513-347,073
3
552,925213,059-339,866
4
8,774,4848,520,784-253,700
5
162,75911,379-151,380
6
197,93648,346-149,590
7
173,59654,262-119,334
8
130,87022,637-108,233
9
124,61819,202-105,416
10
340,330239,946-100,384

Winners  

 And here are the top ten winners:

#DomainSEO VisibilityEnhancement
1
5,787,520529,195
2
640,113314,859
3
916,350307,136
4
52,622,304223,378
5
215,320193,826
6
924,621186,591
7
232,835151,507
8
336,522147,688
9
344,416142,020
10
711,785124,830

The biggest winner was none other than Google's very own YouTube.  Other sites that moved way up in the ratings were big corporate video sites -- Hulu, MTV, NBC, CBS and HBO.

Could it be that the new algorithm gives more weight to heavy video content?  Or might it be that Google is giving higher rankings to big corporate sites that get more "direct" visitors -- meaning visitors who find the site themselves, without using a search engine?

Might it be that Google thinks its previous rankings gave too much credence to text-heavy sites?  Maybe it thinks its users can't read very well and would rather just look at videos?

The answer, of course, is no one knows and Google certainly isn't saying. About all it shares are the internal working names of its various updates (we are currently in the "Panda" era).

"We're continuing to iterate on our Panda algorithm as part of our commitment to returning high-quality sites to Google users," a Google spokesperson told WebProNews Friday. "This most recent update is one of the roughly 500 changes we make to our ranking algorithms each year."

Google has always maintained a heavy veil of secrecy about just what goes into its searches, making the reasonable claim that if it went public with the information, everyone would rejigger their sites to serve up whatever Google was looking for.

Self-determination

On the other hand, maybe if the specifications were public, users could make their own decisions about which sites best met their needs instead of letting Google make that determination in advance?

Google's claim that it knows best begins to sound a bit hollow if one asks how it sounds when governments make the same claim.  Do we admire China for blocking content its rulers don't find helpful?

Not long ago, one of ConsumerAffairs.com's founders started a small local news site, planning to draw on his 50 years in journalism to light up a little corner of the world.  But when he applied to be included in Google News, the search giant responded that his site didn't meet certain standards.

Which ones? he asked.  Sorry, can't tell you, replied Big G.  Google seems to find it worthwhile to list every newspaper that carries an identical AP or Reuters story but seemingly finds no value in a small local site that actually has content not duplicated elsewhere, even though it has always maintained that "original content" is high on its list of positive factors.  

Whether ceding prior approval of which news sites should be revealed to public view bodes well for vigorous journalism might be a suitable topic for debate in the groves of academe.  

Others think all of this is irrelevant since the Internet, in their opinion, is a marketplace for goods and services, not ideas.  Some of Google's harshest critics have adopted this viewpoint.

A widely-watched video uses satire to cast aspersions Google's way. 

Big G takes on the content farms in this satiric video It was just a few weeks ago that we wrote a rather mild little story headlined, "...

Forget Congress, Google Has Big Public Perception Problems

The onetime darling of the cyberworld is seen as a bully

Google finds itself in the hot seat today as the Senate opens antitrust hearings into the Internet giant's conduct.  But even worse than a ritual Capitol Hill grilling is consumers' increasingly sour opinion of what not long ago was seen as the little search engine that could.

No longer so little, Google is being portrayed by such industry rivals as Nextag, Yelp and Expedia as a powerful force that squashes competitors by hurling them into searchland oblivion while elevating search results for Google's constantly expanding array of products and services.

"Anybody who's in any kind of business even remotely related to the Internet has to worry these days that Google will wake up one morning and crush them," said an executive at a successful but relatively small Internet company.  "If Google decides it likes your business, it will simply come in and take it away from you."

No shoes

Some of the critics testifying today would go even further than that. The CEO of Nextag, Jeff Katz, has complained that Google won't even let his company bid on ads that appear next to search results for running shoes.  (Google owns Zappos, which sells shoes).  

Companies in the travel, mortgage and loan sectors say Google is shoving their search results aside to make way for its own, but few will comment publicly for fear of antagonizing Google.

Although the world of search engines and Internet marketing is fairly obscure, consumers are increasingly paying heed to the criticisms, as reflected in an analysis of more than 81,000 comments posted by consumers on Facebook, Twitter and other popular Internet sites over the last year.  The most common comments are reflected in this comment cloud.  Remarks interpreted as positive are shown in green, negative in red.

Positive spin

For its part, Google has quickly mastered the art of putting a positive spin on business practices that could just as easily be described as predatory, depending on the observer's viewpoint.

"We understand with success comes scrutiny, and we're looking forward to the hearing and answering any questions senators may have about our business," a Google spokesman said about today's session.

Previously, Google has defended its decision to move into certain sectors -- comparison shopping for loans, for example -- by saying that it provides consumers with a better product than the companies it allegedly pushes aside.

But do consumers see it that way?

ConsumerAffairs.com's computerized sentiment analysis of 81,000 consumer comments indicates an overall net sentiment that is, perhaps surprisingly, largely negative, dipping to as low as -45% last November, when anti-trust rumblings began gaining in volume.  The trend took a positive turn in the last few weeks but remains highly volatile and could suffer even greater erosion from today's hearing.  

An analysis of the top 10 anti-trust concerns expressed by consumers finds that 76% used the word "abuse" to describe Google's business practices, as in "abuse market power," "abuse dominance" and "abuse dominant position."

There's little doubt Google remains spectacularly more popular than Congress but any whiff of blood in the water can bring down the wrath of politicians eager to be seen as protecting the iconic Little Guy.  Google has amassed a huge D.C. lobbying team in recent years.  Today will test the talents of those spinmasters and influence peddlers, a phrase that for some reason has fallen into oblivion just when it is needed most.   

---

Sentiment analysis by NetBase

Google finds itself in the hot seat today as the Senate opens anti-trust hearings into the Internet giant's conduct.  But even worse than a ritual Cap...

Google Introduces Wallet App on Sprint

Pay for your grande latte with your phone

Google Inc. has rolled out its mobile-payments application on Sprint Nextel, teaming up with Visa, Discover and American Express to make the service more widely available.

Google Wallet, which turns your smartphone into a sort of electronic checkbook, lets you pay for goods and services by tapping a smartphone on a small reader at checkout.  

The service currently works with Citi MasterCard but will spread quickly to others, Google is predicting.

Google says it has rolled out Google Wallet to all Sprint Nexus S 4G phones through an over-the-air update.  If that includes you, just look for the “Wallet” app. Here’s a demo of Google Wallet in action, provided by Google:

"Our goal is to make it possible for you to add all of your payment cards to Google Wallet, so you can say goodbye to even the biggest traditional wallets. In fact, we’ve got a video of our first customer, someone who is ready to replace his famously over-stuffed wallet. We hope Google Wallet gives him “serenity now,” Google said on its blog.

Then again ...

Of course, not everyone thinks this will take the world by storm.

"Consumers won’t save money by paying with a mobile phone. The same fees and interest rates for consumers and interchange fees for retailers will apply to mobile payments," said  in his Connecticut Watchdog blog. "Retailers are also reluctant to spend the money to buy the equipment necessary to link your cell phone to their cash registers."

On the other hand, Christina Warren of Mashable has been using Google Wallet around New York City for the last six weeks with generally good results.

"Thanks to its partnership with Mastercard, the NFC chip built into the Nexus S 4G works with any of the thousands of PayPass merchants. This means that if you are in a taxi cab or at Walgreens, you can just tap or wave your phone to make your payment," Warren said.

Warren says that while the “tap and pay” method of payment is handy, the most potentially valuable feature is what Google is calling SingleTap. "The SingleTap experience means that users can combine their coupons, loyalty cards and payment method all with one tap," she said.

As an added enticement, Google is pairing its Google Offers (a Groupon-like deals program) with a loyalty rewards and purchase points programs tied to Google Wallet. Google says daily deals and coupons will be sent to people's inboxes. You can then use Google Wallet to skip pulling out the loyalty cards and coupons and instead just tap your phone in front of an NFC reader.

Predictably, not everyone is enthused. Privacy advocates say the Wallet will create a lifetime trail of transactions that can be mined by marketers and, potentially, the government. 

"Stores can user information about your Doritos purchases to rearrange their wares; Google could push coupons via its new Google Offers service; your health insurance company might be interested in your sodium intake," said a poster called jfruhlinger on Slashdot

Google Inc. has rolled out its mobile-payments application on Sprint Nextel Corp.’s network, and said it’s teaming up with Visa Inc., Discover ...

Google Buys Zagat, Moving Further Into Content

Search giant increasingly competes with content providers it indexes

Google has acquired Zagat, the survey company and multimedia publisher known best for its print guides to local restaurants.

As Google spins it, the acquisition strengthens its local-search arsenal, helping it compete with other review sites, like Yelp, OpenTable and TripAdvisor.

You may recall that Google tried to buy Yelp for about half a billion dollars a few years ago.  It reportedly paid less than $66 million for Zagat, which would seem to be a bargain.

Zagat, though well-known for its printed guidebooks, is a relatively small presence on the Web, with an estimated monthly audience of barely more than 600,000 compared to Yelp's 15 million.

But small though Zagat may be, the deal means that Google is taking ownership of another big chunk of content, raising questions about how fairly it will direct searches to its competitors in the content field.

How neutral?

The acquisition could give “search neutrality” advocates — and possibly even the Federal Trade Commission — more reason to be skeptical of how neutral Google's search results really are.

Even some Google fans have expressed concern about the deal.  Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis, author of  “What Would Google Do?” is quoted by Gigaom as worrying aloud about the potential conflicts the deal presents.

"Google buying Zagat as a content company would concern me. It would bring channel conflict and put Google in the content-creation instead of the content-linking business, competing with the other side of links and raising conflict-of-interest questions," Jarvis said, according to Gigaom.

On the official Google Blog, Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of local, maps and location services, wrote: “Moving forward, Zagat will be a cornerstone of our local offering — delighting people with their impressive array of reviews, ratings and insights, while enabling people everywhere to find extraordinary (and ordinary) experiences around the corner and around the world.
Google has acquired Zagat, the survey company and multimedia publisher known best for its print guides to local restaurants. As Google spins it,...

Gmail 'Snooping' Amounts to Eavesdropping, Boston Case Claims

Non-Gmail users have not given their consent to Google's interception of their messages

Google can offer Gmail for free because it snoops on electronic messages that non-gmail accountholders send to people with accounts, and sells the information to use in targeted ads, a class action claims. 

Debra L. Marquis filed the case in Massachusetts Superior Court in Boston, alleging that Google's actions violate the Massachusetts Wiretapping Act, Courthouse News Service reported.

The suit seeks to represent all Massachusetts residents who do not have Gmail accounts but who have sent emails to a Gmail account holder.

Marquis charges that she and other non-Gmail users have not given their consent for Google to read their emails and that the practice therefore violates the state's wiretapping laws.

“Google intercepts, discloses or scans emails sent from non-Gmail users to Gmail users … acquires keywords or content from non-Gmail users' emails, and then sends ads related to those keywords or content,” the suit alleges. “For an example, an email exchange between a Gmail user and a non-Gmail user about cars would result in Google sending an ad for a car manufacturer to that Gmail user.”

Marquis said she has used AOL's email since the late 1990s. She seeks damages of $100 per day, injunctive relief and attorneys' fees.

Google can offer Gmail for free because it snoops on electronic messages that non-gmail accountholders send to people with accounts, and sells the informat...

Google Buys, Closes Sparkbuy

Comparison shopping site focused on laptops

Google has made some pretty big acquisitions in its day, but that doesn't mean it can't make a little one now and then.

Thus, the search giant announced the purchase of a search lilliputian – Sparkbuy.com, a year-old comparison shopping site that specialized in laptops.

What's unusual about the deal, aside from its presumably small size, is that Google bought the company and immediately closed it down, saying that its three-member staff would be joining Google's Kirkland, Wash., office.

What's this all about? Is Google pulling the old newspaper industry trick of buying the competition and closing it down?

Not likely, say industry observers, who speculate that the gods of the Googleplex were taken with the elegant design and user-friendly nature of the site and will be putting the three Sparkbuy creators to work improving Google Product Search.

Of course, no one is saying anything for the record.

In a "swansong" posted on its home page, the Sparkbuy trio said it was "pleased as punch" to be joining the Big G.

"When we built Sparkbuy way back in the waning days of 2010, we wanted to make it really easy to find the gadget that's perfect for your needs," a task the crew admitted could be "crazy hard."

"But when people started actually using Sparkbuy, we started to see that the opportunity was bigger," they said, adding, "We're stoked about the opportunity to share our vision for search with a broader audience."

Google Buys, Closes Sparkbuy Comparison shopping site focused on laptops...

Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button

Like a search result? Give it a plus-one

Google doesn't like the way Facebook's “Like” button is showing up everywhere, so it's adding its own version – the “plus-one” button. It's an effort to make search more social and slow down Facebook's growing dominance.

Starting today, Google users will be able to vote plus-one on search results they fine useful and share that preference with their friends using Gmail, Google Chat, Google Reader and Buzz. Twitter will be added soon, Google says.

But the plus-one isn't just a social web gimmick. Google says that, over time, will be have an impact on search rankings, so that sites which users like will appear higher in the search results.

"When someone recommends something, that's a pretty good indicator of quality," said Matt Cutts, Google's principle search engineer. "We are strongly looking at using this in our rankings."

Inbound links and Twitter updates have previously been the strongest components of Google's page-ranking system, observers think.

You'll also be able to vote plus-one on search ads. Better ads should produce more plus-ones, which should improve quality scores and, over time, provide better positioning and lower rates for a given keyword or position.

And just to leave no doubt that Google's latest moves are aimed at Facebook, the company says that the first time you click on a plus-one button, you'll be asked to create a Google profile and adjust your privacy settings.

Google Adds Its Version of the 'Like' Button. Like a search result? Give it a plus-one...

Feds: Google's Buzz Roll-Out Violated Its Own Privacy Policy

Company agrees to 20 years of privacy audits, promises to build tougher privacy protections

Google and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have reached a settlement of charges that Google used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy policy when it launched its social network, Google Buzz, last year.

When companies make privacy pledges, they need to honor them,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “This is a tough settlement that ensures that Google will honor its commitments to consumers and build strong privacy protections into all of its operations."

The settlement bars the company from future privacy misrepresentations, requires it to implement a comprehensive privacy program, and calls for regular, independent privacy audits for the next 20 years.

This is the first time an FTC settlement order has required a company to implement a comprehensive privacy program to protect the privacy of consumers’ information. In addition, this is the first time the FTC has alleged violations of the substantive privacy requirements of the U.S.-EU Safe Harbor Framework, which provides a method for U.S. companies to transfer personal data lawfully from the European Union to the United States.

The FTC charged that when Google launched Buzz through its Gmail web-based email product, it led Gmail users to believe that they could choose whether or not they wanted to join the network, even thoguh the options for declining or leaving the social network were ineffective.

For users who joined the Buzz network, the controls for limiting the sharing of their personal information were confusing and difficult to find, the agency alleged.

On the day Buzz was launched, Gmail users got a message announcing the new service and were given two options: “Sweet! Check out Buzz,” and “Nah, go to my inbox.” However, the FTC complaint alleged that some Gmail users who clicked on “Nah...” were nonetheless enrolled in Buzz.

For those Gmail users who clicked on “Sweet!,” the FTC alleges that they were not adequately informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google also offered a “Turn Off Buzz” option that did not fully remove the user from the social network.

Google received thousands of complaints from consumers who were concerned about public disclosure of their email contacts which included, in some cases, ex-spouses, patients, students, employers, or competitors.

When Google launched Buzz, its privacy policy stated that “When you sign up for a particular service that requires registration, we ask you to provide personal information. If we use this information in a manner different than the purpose for which it was collected, then we will ask for your consent prior to such use.” The FTC complaint charges that Google violated its own policy by using information provided for Gmail for another purpose - social networking - without obtaining consumers’ permission in advance.

The complaint also alleged that a screen that asked consumers enrolling in Buzz, “How do you want to appear to others?” indicated that consumers could exercise control over what personal information would be made public. The FTC charged that Google failed to disclose adequately that consumers’ frequent email contacts would become public by default.

Feds: Google's Buzz Roll-Out Violated Its Own Privacy Policy. Company agrees to 20 years of privacy audits, promises to build tougher privacy protections...

Google Reaches Agreement With Connecticut Over Street View Data

Company accidentally gathered data from unencrypted neworks

Google has reached an agreement with Connecticut over the “payload data” the company accidentally collected from consumers and businesses in the state during 2008 and 2009.

The data was collected using Street View cars equipped with cameras an a Wi-Fi antenna. The antenna inadvertently collected data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen and Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell said Friday they have reached an agreement with Google, Inc. over the company’s objection to a demand that it produce the data.

The stipulation will allow Google and the state of Connecticut, and the 40-state coalition it is leading, to begin negotiations to resolve the data collection issue without going to court to enforce a subpoena issued in December on behalf of the state.

Google has said it is "profoundly sorry" for having mistakenly collected payload data from unencrypted wireless networks.

"As soon as we realized what had happened, we stopped collecting all Wi-Fi data from our Street View cars and immediately informed the authorities," a company spokesman said. "We did not want and have never used the payload data in any of our products and services.”

The company has said that it wanted to delete the data but was barred from doing so by the subpoena issued by Jepson's predecessor, Richard Blumenthal. Google had been fighting the subpoena but the agreement reached Friday resolved the issue.

“This is a good result for the people of Connecticut. The stipulation means we can proceed to negotiate a settlement of the critical privacy issues implicated here without the need for a protracted and costly fight in the courts, although we are ready to do so if we are unable to come to a satisfactory agreement through negotiation,” Jepsen said.

The subpoena was issued after Google refused to provide access to information requested to confirm that Google had gathered private information and to determine the frequency of any violations of law. Google has now stipulated that while collecting network identification information for use in offering “location aware” services, it did in fact collect and store the payload data that contained private information.

In particular, Google stipulates, for purposes of settlement discussions, that the payload data collected contained URLs of requested Web pages, partial or complete e-mail communications or other information, including confidential and private information the network user was transmitting over the unsecured network while Google’s Street View car was within range.

Google also will not contest during settlement negotiations that such private information was collected every day that the Street View cars operated.

Negotiations with Google are continuing.

Google, Reaches Agreement With Connecticut Over Street View Data. Company accidentally gathered data from unencrypted neworks....

Could Google Become Your Telephone Company?

Some think the search giant is angling to become a wireless carrier

Google already dominates the internet search market, owning an estimated 80% plus of all online searches. It's competing in the online shopping business with Google Shopping. Then there's Google TV, which is being held back for a re-tooling before it gets re-booted into our living rooms. And not long ago, Google took on Apple's iphone and RIM's Blackberry with its hot-selling Android smart phone operating system.

Now, according to some, Google wants to become your telephone company as well. According to a report on CNN.com Money from David Goldman, Google already has the technology necessary to become a mobile provider like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

Goldman writes that currently Google licenses its ultra-popular Android smartphone operating system and it is trying its hand at becoming an Internet service provider. But its biggest weapon appears to be Google Voice, a low-cost calling service that launched in May 2009. Just five months later, the service had 1.4 million users -- almost half of whom were using it every single day.

Google currently relies on the other carriers to sell and support its devices. But Goldman says that over the years, Google has been assembling the pieces that would allow it to be its own carrier. He notes there are rumors that Google is buying up "dark fiber," broadband cables that have been laid but are not in use. Google refused to comment on those rumors.

Goldman adds that in February 2010, the company announced that it will become an Internet provider of "ultra high-speed broadband" for up to 500,000 customers for a U.S. city. That project is still under development, but Google is about to start testing its service out at Stanford University.

Goldman says Google already allows people to bypass their mobile carrier's service because the new version of Android ("Gingerbread") supports VoIP Internet calling, allowing users to make calls over Wi-Fi networks. Android by the way is currently the fastest-selling smartphone operating system with about 300,000 new Android devices being activated every day. Android is free for device manufacturers to license, so it has caught on like wildfire. Google makes its money by driving search traffic on Android phones.

As for the phone market, Google began selling the Nexus One Android phone directly to consumers online. Even though it wasn't very successful, Goldman says Google has laid the foundation for a future in retail.

The key question according to Goldman is would Google really be willing to give up its strong relationships with the carriers, most notably Verizon -- the largest network -- to go head-to-head with them in the wireless space?

Goldman says it's probably not going to happen in the immediate future because Google relies so much on other carriers to adopt its software and drive customers to its search site. But down the road, Goldman says it's a real possibility.

The Federal Communications Commission recently declined to enact strong Net neutrality rules for the wireless community. That leaves open the option for carriers to continue restricting their subscribers' access to some of Google's offerings. Goldman points out that there have already been a number of battles. Verizon made Microsoft's Bing the default search engine in some of its Android phones, depriving Google of that coveted spot, and it took more than a year of fighting to make Google Voice available for iPhone users.

Not everyone agrees with Goldman. Forrester Research Analyst Jeffrey Hammond is quoted as saying, "While I think Google could become a mobile provider, I'd view it as a nuclear option." Hammond believes that as long as Google can get 300,000 new phones a day into customers' hands via the existing carriers, and as long as those devices allow consumers to download anything they want, there's no reason for them to compete as a carrier.

Also Goldman points out the extensive regulatory scrutiny Google would face if it were to become a wireless provider. It has very little customer service or retail experience. And becoming a telecom carrier is an expensive business that could weigh on its margins. But when you have as much money as Google has, are such expenses are hardly an obstacle.

Google took on Apple’s iphone with the Android smart phone operating system and now some believe it wants to be your telephone carrier as well...

Google Changes Search Rankings to Protect Consumers From Scams

Responds to media report of abusive merchant gaming the system

The story in the New York Times last week got a lot of people's attention, including the people at Google.

As a result, Google says it has changed the way it ranks search results so that scam artists can't take advantage of their notoriety to ensnare more victims.

The Times reported last week that an online eyeglass merchant abused customers who complained, then taunted them when they posted complaints on sites like ConsumerAffairs.com. He said that the more people wrote about him - even negative comments - the higher he showed up in Google search rankings.

Google this week said it has revised its search algorithm so that, from now on, its system can identify merchants with a bad reputation, and adjust their search rankings accordingly.

"Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue," Amit Singhal, a Google fellow, wrote in a blog posting. "That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live. I am here to tell you that being bad is, and hopefully will always be, bad for business in Google's search results."

Tight lipped

Singhal offered no details about the change, saying to do so would give unscrupulous operators assistance in finding a way to circumvent the new consumer safeguard. And, he said, there's no guarantee people won't find a loophole for this ranking algorithm in the future.

According to the Times, the change appears to be working. Previously, the eyeglass merchant showed up on the first page of a search for "Christian Audigier" and "eyeglasses." Last night, the Times reports, the merchant was not included in the first 20 pages.

According to the original Times report, a New York consumer reported the merchant, who goes by a number of pseudonyms, became abusive to her and made threats when she tried to return a pair of eyeglasses she had purchased online. The threats included litigation, as well as implied threats of physical harm.

Authorities act

According to the newspaper, the merchant has been arrested and faces arraignment later this month.

Singhal says Google could have undertaken a number of different approaches to deal with the issue, including just blocking this particular offender.

"Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience," Singhal said. "The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result."
Google says it has changed its search algorithm so that scammers can no longer user their notoriety to gain access to more victims....

Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads Illegal

Suit says “scanning” violates non-Gmail users' privacy

Have you ever noticed that the content of those ads next to your Gmail inbox are eerily similar to the email you just received?

So has Keith Dunbar.

The Texas resident has filed a class action lawsuit contending that Gmail, Google's vaunted web-based email service, scans users' emails and then uses those messages to decide which ads will be of most interest to the user.

Dunbar's suit, filed in the Eastern District of Texas, says that Google's terms of service, which users are required to accept before setting up a Gmail account, "[do] not contain an acknowledgment of consent by Gmail account holders for Google to use information obtained from non-Gmail account holders' emails," and, in fact, "specifically [forbid] a Gmail account holder from using Gmail to violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others."

Google uses "scanning technology"

The suit quotes a Google statement titled "More on Gmail and privacy" as admitting that "users will see text ads and links to related pages that are relevant to the content of their messages," and that "Google ... uses [a] scanning technology to deliver targeted text ads and other related information."

The suit contends that this practice, which Google says "is completely automated and involves no humans," is illegal insofar as it extends to messages sent by non-Gmail users. According to the complaint, that practice violates a federal law that prohibits an intentional interception of "wire, oral, or electronic communication."

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said the allegations in the suit are old news.

"Gmail -- like most Web mail providers -- uses automatic scanning to fight against spam and viruses," the statement says. "We use similar technology to show advertisements that help keep our services free. This is how Gmail has always worked."

Latest headache for Google

The suit marks the latest action in a year packed with privacy headaches for Google. A suit filed earlier this month says that Google's toolbar provides the search giant with "the address of every web page viewed by the user, along with information that identified the individual user," even when the user thought the feature had been deactivated.

A suit filed in February said that Buzz, Google's attempt at social networking, violated consumers' privacy by automatically revealing user information to people they rarely, if ever, interacted with. And Google had to fight mightily to finalize a settlement concerning Google Books, after privacy advocates said the agreement gave Google too much latitude over how to use consumers' private information.

Dunbar's suit requests the greater of $10,000 or $100 every day that the alleged violations continue, along with punitive damages and an injunction prohibiting Gmail from continuing the practice. It is being brought on behalf of everyone in the United States who sent email from a non-Gmail account to a Gmail address "from within two years before the filing of this action up through and including the date of judgment in this case."

Lawsuit Says Targeted Gmail Ads IllegalSuit says “scanning” violates non-Gmail users' privacy ...

Google Settles Buzz Lawsuit

Settlement money will fund Internet privacy efforts


Google has agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit alleging that Google Buzz, the search engine's attempt at social networking, failed to take steps to protect users' privacy.

The suit was filed in February by Harvard Law student Eva Hibnick, who discovered Buzz only when she logged into her Gmail account on February 9 -- the day Buzz was formally launched -- and saw the application advertised on the left side of her screen.

Hibnick's suit alleged that Buzz broadcast users' private information without obtaining advance permission, or even warning them that certain data was about to become public.

Indeed, Todd Jackson, the project manager in charge of introducing Buzz, went so far as to write on Google's blog that Buzz is built right into Gmail, so you don't have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch -- it just works.

Blogger says Buzz put her in danger

One of Hibnick's biggest concerns was Buzz's auto-follow feature, which automatically signed users up to receive status updates from the six contacts that they most frequently spoke with.

Hibnick was not alone in her concern; on February 11, blogger Harriet Jacobs recounted her own personal horror story. Jacobs wrote that, while her two most frequently-used contacts were her boyfriend and her mother, [t]here's a BIG drop-off between them and my other 'most frequent' contacts.

Jacobs's third most frequent contact was none other than her abusive ex-husband. Equally troubling, several of this ex-husband's close friends rounded out the top six.

Which is why its SO EXCITING, Google, Jacobs blogged, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, which in many instances contained my current location or workplace.

My privacy concerns are not trite, Jacobs continued. They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up.

Google quickly did away with auto-follow, instead providing a list of recommendations but leaving the ultimate decision with the user.

Google pleased with settlement

In a statement, Google declared itself satisfied with the [settlement] agreement and glad to move forward.

We have always been committed to offering users transparency and choice in Buzz and all our products, and will continue to work together with users to provide the best user experience possible, Google said.

The bulk of the settlement money will be provided to groups promoting Internet privacy. Part of the fund will also cover attorneys' fees. When the suit was originally filed, Hibnick's lawyer, Gary Mason, said that money wasn't really an object.

What we'd like to see as result is a commitment from Google that they're not going to do this again the next time they launch a product, Mason said at the time.

The settlement, which was filed in federal court in San Jose, California, still requires final approval from a judge.

Settlement money will fund Internet privacy efforts...

Consumer Group Urges Antitrust Action Against Google

Consumer Watchdog says possible Justice Department action could include breakup of Internet giant

April 22, 2010

California-based Consumer Watchdog is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a broad antitrust action against Google. Such actions, the group says could include breaking the Internet giant into separate companies.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, John M. Simpson, consumer advocate with the nonpartisan, nonprofit group, praised the DOJ for its opposition to the Google Books case and the Federal Trade Commission's intense investigation of the proposed $750 million acquisition of AdMob.

However, the group said it is time to move beyond a reactive approach and "actively restrain Google's broader ability to abuse both users and advertisers."

"Such action could include breaking Google Inc. into multiple separate companies or regulating it as a public utility," the letter said. "Google exerts monopoly power over Internet searches, controlling 70 percent of the U.S. market. For most Americans -- indeed, for most people in the world -- Google is the gateway to the Internet. How it tweaks its proprietary search algorithms can ensure a business's success or doom it to failure."

Consumer Watchdog said Google subsidizes its other businesses by the monopolistic prices it is able to maintain because of its dominance in search.

Consumer Watchdog recommended a variety of remedies:

• One possibility, it said, would be to break Google into different companies devoted to different lines of business. Search could be separated from advertising. Gmail and its new social networking service, Buzz, could be spun off as a separate entity as could YouTube, a Google acquisition that the consumer group says should have been denied at the time of merger. Enterprise applications could be another separate business.

• Google's importance as a gateway to cyberspace requires a maximum degree of openness and transparency with the potential for government regulation. Consumer Watchdog argues that Google's monopoly position and importance to the Internet means that the company should be regarded as a public utility and regulated. It recommends designing a variety of regulations to open up Google's ad platform to enable other competitors to compete. Consumer Watchdog also says rules could be crafted to create greater transparency in the operation of Google's ad platform to enable parties to negotiate more effectively -- for example by providing greater visibility into the maximum amount of the highest bid, how many search terms are shown per page, and how Google's "quality score" is derived and applied. The group says little, if any, of this information is currently public and contends openness would contribute to consumer choice and options as well as foster competition.

• Another remedy would be to force Google to disgorge its "monopolistic gains" through the imposition of financial penalties. Consumer Watchdog points out that the payment would have to be significant enough to affect Google's future behavior and suggests tying the amount to paying back consumers for monetizing their private information and content without compensating them.

"The pending actions in the Books case and AdMob deal are important and must be pursued to their conclusion," the letter concluded. "It is, however, past time to act against Google's monopolistic and pervasive power over the entire Internet."

In a statement distributed to the news media, Google spokesman Adam Koracevich said "we totally understand that with size and success comes scrutiny. "But he suggested that little could be done to assuage the consumer group. "Given their track record, even if we broke Google in half tomorrow, Consumer Watchdog would probably insist that we split halves into quarters."

Consumer Group Urges Antitrust Action Against Google...

Google Social App Runs Into Buzzsaw

Class action says Buzz violates privacy laws


Google Buzz, the search giants new social networking feature, has generated countless headlines since its launch last week, most focusing on its novel and groundbreaking features, and some going so far as to dub it the Facebook killer.

But Buzz drew decidedly less glowing coverage on Wednesday, when a Harvard Law student filed a class action alleging that the service publicizes users confidential information without first obtaining their permission.

On February 9 the day Buzz was officially introduced 24-year-old Eva Hibnick logged into her Gmail account to check her messages, and noticed Buzzs new iconic four-color logo beneath the link to her inbox. Her experience was not unusual; Buzz was launched with no advance notice to speak of, leaving consumers to decipher the application for themselves. When Hibnick learned what Buzz was and how it worked, she was immediately concerned that the program improperly revealed her private information.

I feel like they did something wrong, Hibnick told ABC News. They opted me into this social network and I didn't want it.

It is by design that Buzz publicizes as much information as possible without any user input. Todd Jackson, the project manager in charge of the products rollout, wrote on Googles blog that Buzz is built right into Gmail, so you don't have to peck out an entirely new set of friends from scratch it just works.

Sounds good, but the program has several Orwellian aspects. Hibnick was most troubled by Buzzs auto-follow feature. When the program was first launched, it automatically signed users up to receive Facebook-style status updates from the six people they most frequently chat or e-mail with. How the program really determines who those people are, though, remains a bit of a mystery. This writer, for example, was set up to follow two people that he hasnt spoken to in several years. Only one of the remaining four was someone that he e-mails regularly.

Gmail quickly did away with auto-follow, modifying the site so that it provides a list of recommended followees, but leaves the ultimate decision to the user.

Hibnicks attorney, Gary Mason, said the suit isnt primarily about money (although Hibnick is seeking monetary damages), but about preventing the Buzz catastrophe from repeating itself. What we'd like to see as result is a commitment from Google that they're not going to do this again the next time they launch a product, Mason said.

The suit adds a new dimension to long-building concerns over Googles privacy policy. Reservations initially focused on the companys ability to know what any given person has searched for, along with features like Google Maps, which provides an instant birds-eye or street-view photo of millions of properties across the world. Eric Schmidt, the companys CEO, added fuel to the fire in an interview in December, when he declared that, If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

Hibnick is not the only one raising privacy concerns. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Tuesday, in which it argues that Buzz violated user expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's privacy policy, and may have violated federal wiretap laws.

EPIC wants the FTC to require that Buzz run as an opt-in application so that consumers have to affirmatively sign-up rather than as an opt-out program in which consumers are automatically enrolled. Mason, Hibnicks lawyer, also takes issue with Buzzs opt-out nature, describing it as an unfair and generally deceptive practice.

The filing comes at an already-stressful time for Google, which is fighting for final approval of a settlement in the massive four-year-old Google Books lawsuit. Judge Denny Chin was set to rule on the agreement today, but announced he is taking more time to digest the issues.

Hibnicks suit is being brought on behalf of all Gmail users whose accounts were automatically connected to Buzz. Mason estimates that there are over 30 million potential class members.

Google Social App Runs Into Buzzsaw...

Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads

Google banning advertisers, not just ads, from its ad network


We've all seen them; those little ads on the side of whatever Web page we're looking at that promise a flatter belly, whiter teeth, or the chance to make thousands of dollars a month just by searching the web.

In the month of November alone, ConsumerAffairs.com has received nearly 100 complaints about these companies and their sales practices.

Nearly every complaint is identical -- the consumer is lured by a "trial size" of some wonder product and thinks he or she will only have to pay for shipping, which is usually a small amount, around $2. Within days, a full-size bottle of whatever he or she ordered arrives in the mail.

Unbeknownst to them, however, they have only a day or two to return it. If they don't, they're signed up for "memberships" to online "clubs," and then, most frustratingly, slammed with several shockingly large fees.

"I learned a valuable lesson." Karen of LaVerne, California told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There is no trial size at a reduced rate for the product."

Geraldine of Dawsonville, Ga., thought she was ordering a trial of Resveratrol for $1.95 but ended up with a full bottle of it and no information. Soon after that, another full-size bottle arrived. When she called her credit card company, she made an awful discovery.

"In addition to the $1.95, which had been billed and paid, there were two new unauthorized charges," she told ConsumerAffairs.com. "There was one charge for $87.62 on 11/4 by Improved Health, and another charge made on 11/11 for $87.62 by Youth Supp. Each charge had a different toll-free number. I called the one associated with the 11/4 charge and after waiting for 45 minutes, was disconnected. Called again and waited about 30 minutes before I finally spoke to a representative.

Geraldine said she was told that she was on an auto-ship program and every 30 days the company would ship a bottle of this stuff to the tune of $87.62 each.

"She said I had 15 days to return the first bottle if I didn't want to stay in the program," Geraldine said. "None of this was communicated on the website where I ordered the sample. She asked if I read the terms and conditions, but I saw nothing there with terms and conditions. I realized immediately that I've been scammed."

Finding Loopholes

Because these companies have found loopholes in the system to get their ads featured via Google AdSense and the Google Affiliate Network, used by many reputable websites, Google has only been banning ads one at a time.

As recently as June, Google appeared a bit more relaxed about questionable ads. When contacted by ConsumerAffairs.com concerning scam ads that even used the word "Google" in its name, a spokesman declined to comment but said "Our legal team reviews them and takes appropriate action if necessary." But they weren't doing much more. Until now.

Last week, Google started banning the advertisers instead of the ads. In the past, when Google banned a URL, the advertiser would just create a new URL, shilling the same products. Now, the advertiser is banned and put on notice that it is no longer allowed to sell anything through Google's ad systems.

Cable TV, as well as the Internet, is littered with ads for companies that range from abusive to outright scams. Very few media outlets, however, have done much to police their advertisers. Google appears to be taking that step -- preventing questionable ads from showing up on reputable Web sites where readers often assume that just because an ad is on a site they trust, it must be legitimate.

Website publishers note that -- unlike print publications -- ads are not inserted into Web pages in advance but, for the most part, are inserted "on the fly," each time a reader opens the page. With tens of thousands of advertisers in Google and other large programs, publishers say it's simply not possible for them to preview each ad that might, or might not, run on their site.

While Google has taken a positive step to clean up its ad network, consumers also have the responsibility to exercise greater care when they consider offers made over the Internet. Offers that sound "too good to be true" are usually scams. Also, if you are required to give someone your credit card number in order to receive a "free" sample, you should expected unauthorized charges.

Consumers May Soon See Fewer Scam Ads...

Google Books Settlement Facing Scrutiny

Concerns center on possible monopoly, invasion of privacy

By Jon Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

September 13, 2009
The proposed Google Books settlement, once hailed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin as giving consumers unprecedented access to the tremendous wealth of knowledge that lies within the books of the world, is getting decidedly negative reviews from a number of industry players and government agencies, with concerns about monopolies and consumer privacy at the top of the list.

Google was hit with a lawsuit in 2006, accused of copyright infringement for offering over 10 million protected works to the public free of charge. The search behemoth settled the lawsuit in October of last year, agreeing to pay $125 million in what it called an historic deal that would benefit consumers. Under the agreement, Google would give publishers about two-third of revenues made from selling access to out-of-print works, keeping 37% for itself.

The settlement was hailed as the first step toward allowing consumers to search for and buy out-of-print books, and provided that U.S. libraries would have free access to Google's master database. In testimony before Congress, Google's chief legal officer David Drummond added that bookstores and online booksellers like Amazon.com would be able to sell access to Google's database on any Internet-connected device they choose.

The settlement is now facing increasing scrutiny as it awaits final court approval. A key point of contention is a section permitting Google to scan and store orphan books -- those that are no longer in print but still protected by a valid copyright -- without first securing permission from the works' copyright holders.

Marybeth Peters, head of the U.S. Copyright Office, told Congress that the settlement would give Google a license to infringe first and ask questions later, and added that the agreement makes a mockery of Article One of the Constitution, that anticipates that authors shall be granted exclusive rights.

John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, a California-based non-profit, said a key problem is the unfair competitive advantage Google receives under the settlement that comes from its attempt to pull an end-run around the appropriate legislative solution to the orphan books problem. This is not an issue for a court and certainly one that cannot be settled by solving the problem for one large corporation and no one else, he said in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last week.

He said the problem is Googles monopolistic digital library and how it would be implemented. The proposed class-action settlement is monumentally overbroad and invites the court to overstep its legal jurisdiction, to the detriment of consumers and the public, he said. The proposed settlement agreement would strip rights from millions of absent class members, worldwide, in violation of national and international copyright law, for the sole benefit of Google.

Google's competitors -- Microsoft, for example -- are also crying foul, claiming that the provision allowing Google to store orphan books would amount to a veritable monopoly on that market. Amazon executive Paul Misener told SF Gate that, while his company also scans and stores orphan books, it first secured permission from copyright holders. We went to the rights holders, and one by one, negotiated deals, Misener said.

Misener likened Amazon's interest in blocking the settlement with its interest in network neutrality. He said the settlement would give Google an advantage rather than provide a level playing field. "Under the proposed settlement, Google would become a consumer's nightmare: the only store in town," he said.

In a move aimed at quelling such criticism, the settlement agreement provides that funds for orphan books would be held in escrow for five years, or until the copyright owner claims the book. Additionally, Google has agreed to spend $34.5 million to create a registry in an effort to locate those owners.

Privacy concerns

Google is also under fire from privacy advocates, who insist that the agreement will do nothing to protect consumers. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sought to intervene on behalf of consumers' privacy rights, apparently unswayed by Google's newly released privacy proposal.

That proposal, pitched to the Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, stresses that Google would not share users' information with third parties except under very limited and narrow circumstances, which would be explicitly set forth in the final privacy proposal. According to Google, those narrow circumstances are limited to situations where Google shares information with trusted entities that process information on our behalf or to prevent physical or financial harm. Google also promised to enact protections to limit the information ... available to credit card companies about book purchases. Privacy advocates point out that these measures are informal and not legally binding, and thus afford consumers little real protection.

The amount of data that Google could amass about a readers behavior is unprecedented, Consumer Watchdog's Simpson said. It could be commingled with data from other Google services posing a new threat to user privacy and flies in the face of the U.S. tradition of privacy regarding reading habits, he argued.

"Consumer Watchdog supports digitization and digital libraries in a robust competitive market open to all organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, that offer fundamental privacy guarantees to users, Simpson concluded. But a single entity cannot be allowed to build a digital library based on a monopolistic advantage when its answer to serious questions from responsible critics boils down to: Trust us. Our motto is Dont be evil.

Its its defense, Google notes that it has taken measures to protect privacy in the past. The company blurs certain locations on Google Maps including, until January, the Vice President's residence in Washington -- and its privacy policy says that personal information required for customers to log in is not shared with third parties, although it makes an exception for trusted parties.



Google Books Settlement Facing Scrutiny...

Google Buys YouTube -- And So?

What's It Mean to Your Average Surfer?

It was the shot heard 'round the technology world as search engine king Google announced it was buying video sharing site YouTube to the tune of $1.6 billion in stock.

Both companies' CEOs touted the move as a way to take advantage of the others' strengths -- Google can utilize YouTube's huge popularity and massive potential advertising base, and YouTube can swim in their new corporate parent's deep financial pockets.

But what does it mean to you, the everyday user who uses Google to search for information, or use YouTube's endless selection of video clips to waste time at work?

The chief concerns of YouTube fans are that Google may start charging viewers to watch or share content they could formerly access for free, and that major media conglomerates might be more tempted to sue YouTube users for violating copyright when posting content such as music videos, film clips, and so on.

This would drive many fans on to the next "cool" or free site, much as file-sharing site Napster was litigated into becoming a for-pay (and much less popular) service.

YouTube CEO Chad Hurley assured skeptics that the company would continue to operate independently, and without any major changes.

In a video posted on YouTube, Hurley said that "we are gonna stay committed to providing the bestmost innovative service, and developing new tools and technologies for you to keep having fun on our site."

As part of the strategy to avoid the predicted mountain of copyright lawsuits, YouTube announced it had cut a deal with CBS to enable sharing of CBS News clips in exchange for a cut of advertising revenue. Google announced a similar deal with Sony BMG for its own Google Video service, a deal which may be extended to YouTube.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen also talked up the company's new "flagging" technology, which purportedly enables identification of copyrighted content for quick and easy removal.

Although companies such as Universal have complained about the heavy sharing of "unauthorized" content on YouTube, the company has been able to avoid potential lawsuits by promptly complying with requests to remove videos, and because it simply didn't have the money to be a worthwhile lawsuit target. With Google's ten-league pockets backing them, that may change.

Advertising is going to be key for making money from the massive joint venture.

YouTube fans are accustomed to accessing the site's purported 100 million-plus videos for free, and without a subscription system to make money from the content, the company is going to rely on getting users to click on ads in order to generate revenue.

Critics complained about the $1.6 billion price tag for the sale, saying that YouTube had yet to find a way to make money from its video hosting, and that the sale was reminiscent of the late-90's "dot-com boom," which eventually led to a huge bust and the shuttering of many businesses.

As a sign that Google is hedging its bets, the company claimed that its own Google Video service would stay active, though YouTube users would not have to sign up with Google in order to continue using YouTube.

Google recently suffered a minor embarrassment when hackers took advantage of a flaw in the company's Blogger service to post an unauthorized entry to the company's own blog. The hackers claimed the company was canceling a "click-to-call" advertising service developed in conjunction with sometime Google ally eBay.

For now, it seems that YouTube fans have nothing to fear, and can continue to enjoy the hordes of dancing monkeys, sleeping kittens, and stupid human tricks that make up the bulk of the site's video content.

As to what may come in the future, both companies are wisely choosing to wait and see what presents itself.

Google Buys YouTube -- And So?...