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Privacy advocates target Google

June 04, 2008|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

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

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

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

The privacy advocates said Google didn't want to clutter up its famously austere home page with a privacy link.

"Google's homepage will easily accommodate this important seven-letter word," said Beth Givens, director of San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Her group was joined by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the World Privacy Forum and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Their letter said the "straightforward reading" of the California law governing privacy policies -- which explain what companies do with the customer data they collect -- was "that Google must place the word 'privacy' on the Google.com web page," with that word linking to the policy explaining what the company does with information about its users.

The groups pointed out that most major sites have such links, including those owned by Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc.

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

But that standard is just one option under the law. Another is to post a hyperlink "that is so displayed that a reasonable person would notice it."

Google's link is on its About page, which is linked to from google.com.

Google spokesman Steve Langdon said last week that the "reasonable person" clause and other aspects of the law protected the Mountain View, Calif.-based company.

Joanne McNabb, chief of California's Office of Privacy Protection, said the difficulty in answering questions such as whether a reasonable person would notice the link to the privacy policy was why "it makes more sense not to focus on nit-picky statutory requirements."

The point, McNabb said, was to try to establish best practices. And a link from the home page is "beyond a best practice," she said, it's standard practice.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

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