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Summary:

Is Google’s new privacy policy another sign it has broken its promise and is becoming more evil? Or is the fuss over the new version — which will allow the search giant to share data among its various services — a tempest in a privacy teapot?

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Google seems determined to push the boundaries of what people expect from the company, for better or worse. Just days after launching a new personalized search that has drawn criticism from both competitors and users, the company’s announcement that it’s revising its privacy policies has touched off another wave of discontent about the implications for users. So is Google’s new omnibus policy another sign it has broken its promise and is becoming more evil by the day? Or is the fuss over the new version, which will allow the search giant to share data among its various services, just a tempest in a privacy teapot?

In a blog post on the announcement, Google says the new privacy policy will be rolled out in March (the new version is online already), but the company wanted to give users a heads up well in advance because “this stuff matters” (and probably also because both Google and Facebook have had their hands slapped by the Federal Trade Commission and other authorities over privacy). The company notes it currently has more than 70 different privacy policies that govern its various services, from YouTube to Gmail to Blogger. Privacy director Alma Whitten says this approach was:

[A]t odds with our efforts to integrate our different products more closely so that we can create a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience.

Google says it just wants to make things easier for you

This makes it sound as though Google is tidying up a messy room, and the company clearly wants users to see it as a benevolent gesture. The post goes on to say that the driving force behind the unification — the ability for Google to combine information you’ve provided to one of its services with information from other services — is designed solely to provide “a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.” And the official announcement ties it directly to the launch of personalized search, which the blog post says is an example of “the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products.”

That may be how Google sees its personalized search, but others see it as a fundamental breach of Google’s core search mission, since competitors like Twitter and Facebook argue it favors Google’s own social network over others (and have created a browser tool they say demonstrates this imbalance). The search feature could even provide further ammunition for antitrust regulators, who already have the company in their sights.

The storm of criticism over the new personalized search, which appears to break Google’s original promise to users that it would provide “objective” search results, seems to have made many suspicious of any change that Google makes, and some argue that this has caused people to over-react to the new privacy policy. Kashmir Hill at Forbes, for example, points out that the new policy isn’t even a major change from Google’s earlier policy, which also gave the company the right to share your information between different services. The “Internet freak-out” over the policy change is unwarranted, she says.

But the policy issue seems to have highlighted for many a crucial question: Is Google having all of that info about you — including web searches, Google Analytics data from your website, even location information — a good thing? Mat Honan at Gizmodo says Google is clearly straying over the line towards being evil, and others argue the changes mean the company is turning its back on privacy for its own selfish interests. Some privacy advocates say the new policy is “frustrating and a little frightening.”

Does Google want to serve you better, or serve advertisers better?

As The Economist notes in a piece on the privacy changes, one of the driving forces behind the sharing of information between Google services is that this will allow the search giant to more efficiently identify and target users for advertising — in other words, the same goal Facebook has in offering many of its new features, such as its “frictionless sharing” apps and even the new Timeline personal history feature. This is also at the core of the uneasiness about both services accumulating more and more personal data: It may make things easier, but for whom? Does it just make it easier for Google and Facebook to attract advertisers, or is it actually beneficial for users as well?

Not everyone is critical of being targeted, however: Christopher Dawson at ZDNet, for example, says he is enthusiastically in favor of Google’s information sharing, because he says he wants the company to get better at identifying important or relevant information for him — including ads. But for others, Google’s moves reinforce just how much the giant company knows about them, from their browsing history to their email conversations. For those who want to “compartmentalize” their lives, with some services reserved for personal use and others for business or public use, the pooling of information is a very real threat.

Google makes a point of noting you can export your data from most of its services, thanks to an effort it calls the Data Liberation Front, so users who don’t like their information being shared can take their business elsewhere. But there is no “opt out” that allows users to not take part in this data sharing — and that could be an issue for Google as regulators like the European Union put more and more focus on what some have called the “right to be forgotten” and the need to give users more control over what happens to their personal information.

The bottom line is that whether you see Google’s new privacy policy as evil or not depends on what you think the company’s purpose is: Is it to help users find information that is relevant to them? If so, then pooling information is probably good. But if Google’s potential distortion of that purpose with its personalized search and favoritism towards Google+ results has you suspicious about its motives, then it might look a little evil. In the end, you have to answer the question: “Does Google have my best interests at heart?”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Josh Halletti and Christian Ditatompel

  1. While there is no opt-out from data sharing, you can opt out from both personalized ads, browser-specific search ads and you can install advertising cookie opt-out plugin

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    1. That’s true — thanks for pointing that out, Karen.

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  2. I’ve never really understood the concern over free services using user data to provide targeted advertising — a free web doesn’t pay for itself — but Google’s new methods are a bit creepy, especially if multiple users share a computer.

    But anyone who thinks any company is looking to provide a better service without looking to make a little money is naive. As I noted yesterday (http://gigaom.com/2012/01/24/google-delivers-a-unified-platform-via-new-privacy-policy/), even Google’s new privacy policy, as a easier-to-read document, isn’t pure altruism but is in part related to its privacy settlement with the FTC.

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    1. Good point — thanks, Derrick.

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  3. I think that the Google Privacy Policy is no worse than those of Twitter, Facebook and others….and thats unfortunate….This is one of the reasons that we have developed kleemi.com a “Community” first alternative to Google, Facebook and Twitter.
    The kleemi privacy agreement can be viewed here
    http://blog.kleemi.com/?p=72

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  4. Not sure what the issue is…. They had all this info before, now they are just combining it… I love how all these articles I have read people are saying they are getting rid of their Google Accounts NOW, but have no problem posting a comment with your facebook login….

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  5. Im honestly really tired of Google getting a bad rap for everything that could possibly be construed as motivated by profit – they are a company that provides countless free services and contributions to many industries that benefit them AND their competitors (SPDY, WebM, HTML5 and open source contributions, etc). When one actually tallies everything up Google, perhaps because of their ego, is an incredibly generous company that shares their investments. Why not give them some slack? And why does it really matter if Google’s services are consolidated and share information when companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and everyone else already do this for all their services? And let me ask you this: Does Facebook allow you to delete you account while exporting all your data into a usable format of your choice the way Google does so that you can move to a competitor’s service? No? Geez I wonder why they aren’t getting flack for that like Google is getting for this.

    Everyone just loves to hate Google because of their omnipresence but don’t really understand what they are talking about.

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  6. The funny thing about this if you think about it, if Google wants to step out over some imaginary line with each and every user, it would create ill will. When one creates ill will there are consequences to it and it depends on the users thresh hold.

    In my case for example, if you compromise my experience or faith in your motivation and intention, I can actively opt out of participating in any action you hope to elicit out of me.

    If google ‘is evil’ then they will suffer in the ad department as I will go out of my way to discourage their marketing efforts and also go out of my way to participate in competitors products!

    So think about it, they squander my goodwill and what will it get them? Thats right nothing.

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  7. The problem with Google’s data sharing is that it crosses whole industries within one company. Not only your data about what you search for, but also where you are (have been) and who you talk to (Android); who you email, newsgroups you subscribe to, where you work, where you bank, your websites and those of your customers (webmaster tools, google analytics), who/what your friends/likes are (G+), what type of videos you look at (YouTube) and when you look at them… and on and on.

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    1. Why is this “a problem” ?

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  8. How long before Sergey combines your personal (Google) data with the your DNA information from his wife’s company (www.23andme.com), and sells it to your insurance company?

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  9. > [A]t odds with our efforts to integrate our different
    > products more closely so that we can create a
    > beautifully simple, intuitive user experience.

    Oh really? A “beautifully simple, intuitive user experience”? You don’t say Google. Sounds like a rip off of Apple’s m.o. … where were you (Page, Brin and Schmidt) years ago when you were hiring Ph.D’s who get bored easily and tend to be scatter brained. Now that the iPhone and iPad is white hot, yo want to become beautifully simple? That’s dubious.

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  10. Diaspora anyone?

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  11. For the first time Google has itemized what it is collecting, and that is what makes it scary.
    They know where you are (and have been) via GPS and other means
    They know who you speak to (incoming and outgoing calls)
    They know your friends
    They know (many of) your purchases
    They (may) know your credit card information

    And they promise to keep it all safe and private unless they have the rights to use/share it or are asked nicely by some legal body (with varying requirements depending on country).

    So it is not that they changed the policy that should scare you, but what they have already been doing.

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  12. I am still thinking why the Last Modified date there is Mar 1, 2012 :)

    (https://www.google.com/intl/en/policies/privacy/preview/ )

    Nice way to show you are ahead of time, is it ?!

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  13. It’s disturbing when I see ads of the exact products I pulled from my shopping cart following me around on email and YouTube.

    And why is YouTube displaying ads for gay dating when I never visited anything related (some will say yeah right, I’m lying). That’s exactly the problem.

    What if you your mom goes online and gets penis enlargement ads or video suggestions of midgets riding unicorns?

    It’s just plain wrong. Just let people choose to get the chip implanted in their brain for 1 million Microsoft Points and be done with it. Obviously privacy is the last thing on peoples minds these days. Popular consensus among 12 year old kids doesn’t reflect the majority vote or intelligent user wold wide.

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  14. Thanks for your posting, because I saw the news earlier, but didn’t really care about it. I admit this privacy problem is very important for today’s social media, since Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google pus all these tools more focus on people’s sharing culture, and this sharing theory even changed the way we listen music like Pandora and Spotify. But now, people start to worry about the privacy. I’m glad Google started to concern about it.
    I have read an article before, it says there is a dirty little secret about social media, and most of social media sites these companies are monitoring are blogs and Web forums. They want to know what you are tweeting about, what are you blogging about, and where your comments are published.
    Therefore, we are transparent, but we are enjoying social networking, it brings us convenience. Recently I been reading Zarefsky’s Rhetoric’s responsibilities for communication ethic class, and it says: we have responsibilities: to explain, to assess, and to improve the quality of discourse about topics that matter, and thereby to empower individuals and to enhance our public life (Zarefsky,Plenary Address,2008,p.13). David Zarefsky one of the responsibilities tells about “it binds individuals into communities and publics by establishing common bonds among people.”
    So, yes we should be concerned about Google’s privacy new policy, I don’t care Google do that it’s for making profit or for protecting the users, either way will work for the our community, we just need to keep using the social media power to impact the public, impact the world!

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  15. I don’t trust google any more than I trust facebook. I’ve closed my gmail account and will use bing for my searches for the time being.
    Todd Bensel

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  16. Very interesting article Matthew – I like how you’ve represented the different views of how some people see it as a threat, and other think it is great to have it!

    I think that the type of information Google will have access to is a little bit disconcerting, but also think Google is essentially as ‘intrusive’ as you allow it to be (such as opting out from some of the personalisation and toggling settings/ or even just logging out of google!). We discuss how it may effect people on these levels here, http://ow.ly/8XXWF, which may be of interest to you.

    I think it will have an interesting effect on future data liberation too – hot topic at the momemt after SOPA/PIPA and even changes on social networks such as Facebook Timeline!

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