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World realizes Google home page is 'illegal'

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Five years later, an army of privacy-minded watchdogs has suddenly realized the Google home page is illegal.

Today, a coalition of privacy advocates - including the World Privacy Forum, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the ACLU of Northern California - fired an open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, pointing out that the Google home page does not include a link to the company's privacy policy. This, the coalition says, is a blatant violation of the California Online Privacy Protection Act.

Enshrined in 2003, the California Online Privacy Protection Act says that any commercial net operation that collects personal info about its users "shall conspicuously post its privacy policy on its Web site." This means a link to the policy must be "located on the homepage or first significant page after entering the Web site."

As it stands, Google first links to its policy from an "About" page, one hop away from the home page. But the company says this isn't a problem. "By having a link to our privacy policy one click from our home page, and because the privacy policy is easily found by using the search box on the home page, we comply with this statute," a spokeswoman told us.

But EPIC's Marc Rotenberg doesn't buy it. "I've been teaching privacy law for twenty years, and in any of these disputes, there will always be two sides," he told The Reg. "But I think that the straightforward reading is that the requirement is you put a link on your home page. And the best evidence of this is that's basically what every other commercial web site does."

The latest Google privacy debate first turned up last week in a series of blog posts - here and here - from The New York Times. As the The Times tells it, Google founder Larry Page doesn't want a privacy link on that "beautiful clean home page." Page and company recently applied to join the Network Advertising Initiative - an online ad trade group - and though the group recommends home page privacy links, Google told the group it wouldn't heed this recommendation.

Meanwhile, California’s Office of Privacy Protection is making a similar recommendation. "We advocate Google putting a link on its home page," office head Joanne McNabb told us. "That's become standard practice in the industry - more than standard practice." But McNabb's office has no power to regulate. A Google crackdown would have to come from the California Attorney General's office - or a civil suit.

We see little difference between a home page link and an About page link. People so rarely read legalese, wherever it turns up. The bigger issue is that Google refuses to change its privacy policies. The company still indexes your email. It still stores your IP address alongside your search history for at least 18 months. And if it does "anonymize" your IP address after 18 months - and that's a big if - it still refuses to anonymize the whole thing.

But we will say that Larry Page's beautiful-clean-home-page argument is a hoot. Clearly, this ongoing obsession with a clean home page has nothing to do with beauty and everything to do with dollars. If you can link to "Advertising Programs" without hurting the beauty of your home page, you can link to a privacy policy.

Or maybe this obsession has everything to do with arrogance. Google likes to think it's different from the rest. ®

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