Senators accuse Google of "phishing for profit"

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Senate Committee points to double standard.

Google's Australian head of public policy has told a Senate Committee that customers need to either trust the company is doing the right thing with user data or switch to other services.

In an extended session today, two Google public policy executives faced pointed - if not hostile - questions from politicians concerned about Google's use of contextual targeting on its popular Gmail and search platforms.

Google public policy advisor Ishtar Vij defended contextual targeting platforms, saying they used the "same technology that scans [web and email content] for viruses or spam."

But Greens Senator Scott Ludlam raised concerns about where behavioural targeting may move in the future.

"We are very much relying on Google's goodwill," he said at the hearing, worried that Google's current corporate culture of "don't be evil" may shift into darker territory in the future.

Ludlam also raised concerns as to how easily law enforcement agencies could gain access to Google's keyword analysis to conduct "phishing expeditions" in an attempt to monitor online communications for evidence of crime.

Google Australia's head of public policy Iarla Flynn told the committee that any requests for data from law enforcement agencies were assessed by a specialised legal team.

"Anything in the nature of a phishing expedition would not cooperate with," Flynn said, adding that every request for information "would have to meet the spirit and the letter of the law."

These sentiments drew a sarcastic response from ALP Senator Doug Cameron, who asked the Google representatives to take an additional comment on notice.

"So you can phish for profit, but not for law enforcement," he said. "I think there is a bit of an issue there."

Flynn consistently told the hearing that customers had a choice whether to use Google's services and thus opt-in to having their search, mail and other services used for the purpose of directing advertising.

"If you don't trust Google as a steward of your data, you are free to move elsewhere very easily," Flynn said.

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