Google’s new privacy policy: Should you be concerned?

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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

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