Salisbury native defends Google; VP says privacy policy good for users

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 23, 2012

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — A top Google executive who grew up in Salisbury defended the Internet giant’s upcoming privacy changes as good for users.
Despite recent criticism from lawmakers and consumer privacy advocates, Google really does embrace the company’s famous credo, “don’t be evil,” Richard Alfonsi said.
“Google’s heart is always in the right place, from what I’ve seen,” said Alfonsi, Google’s vice president for sales and strategy.
The 1989 Salisbury High School graduate added, “We are doing the right thing.”
Alfonsi talked to the Post in advance of his appearance Friday in Charlotte for the launch of North Carolina Get Your Business Online, part of Google’s international promotion for small businesses.
Google offers free website design and web hosting for one year to businesses with fewer than 250 employees. Friday’s free event runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at The Big Chill, 911 E. Morehead St. Suite 100.
On March 1, Google will begin sharing user data across almost all of its online products, including Gmail, YouTube and Google+, the social networking site that competes with Facebook. No matter which website someone is logged into, Google will treat the person as a single user.
Critics say the change could reveal a lot of personal information, such as location, sexual orientation, age, religion and health concerns, that people may not want to share with Google.
Google will merge more than 60 different privacy documents into one umbrella policy. The change will clarify the privacy policy and make it simpler for users, Alfonsi said.
“I think Google is as consumer-oriented with respect to thinking about privacy as any company I have ever heard of,” he said.
Alfonsi said he doesn’t know of any plans to delay the March 1 privacy changes, even after the Center for Digital Democracy added its voice Wednesday to an increasing number of complaints.
The center asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to force Google to halt its plan and fine the company for violating an October privacy settlement with the agency.
Also Wednesday, 36 attorneys general from across the country signed a letter to Google Chief Executive Larry Page, saying they are concerned the changes increase the risk of identity theft and fraud.
The complaints follow a lawsuit filed Feb. 8 by the Electronic Privacy Information Center against the FTC for failing to enforce the order barring Google from misrepresenting its privacy practices. Eight lawmakers — three Republican and five Democrats — also wrote to Google in January with concerns.
The changes raise questions “about whether consumers can opt out of the new data sharing system either globally or on a product-by-product basis,” the lawmakers wrote.
By reducing the privacy documents to one, Google will decrease word counts for readers, make explanations clearer and eliminate legal jargon, the company said in a video on the policy changes.
“Google always thinks about putting the user first,” Alfonsi said. “That has always been the mantra.”
Google is not making the changes to provide convenience to users, but to better track them and deliver targeted advertising, the Center for Digital Democracy complaint said. Critics charge that Google can better target ads to consumers when it consolidates their data in one place.
Alfonsi said the changes are not about advertising but simplifying and clarifying language for users.
Google also maintains the single-user approach will provide smarter search results, knowing whether users want to see a cat or car when they type in “jaguar,” based on information about them gleaned from all the Google services they use.
People will still have control over their personal information, Alfonsi said.
The updated policy “will make our privacy practices easier to understand, and it reflects our desire to create a seamless experience for our signed-in users,” the company said in a statement.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.