Should Google’s New Privacy Policy Concern You?

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 drew criticism from both competitors and users, the company has announced it’s revising its privacy policies, touching off a further wave of discontent about the implications for users. Is Google’s new omnibus policy an additional sign that 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” (also, probably, because both Google and Facebook have had their hands slapped by the Federal Trade Commission and other authorities over privacy issues). The company notes it currently has more than 70 different privacy policies that govern its various services, from YouTube to Gmail to Blogger. Google privacy director Alma Whitten says this approach was “at odds with our efforts to integrate our different products more closely so that we can create a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience.”

This makes it sound as though Google is tidying up a messy room. 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. Competitors such as Twitter and Facebook argue that it favors Google’s own social network over others. (They’ve created a browser tool that they say demonstrates this imbalance). The search feature could even provide further ammunition for antitrust regulators, who already have the company in their sights.

General Suspicion Grows

The surge 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. Some argue that this has caused people to overreact 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 among different services. The “Internet freak-out” over the policy change is unwarranted, she says.

Still, the policy issue seems to highlight what is for many a crucial question: Is it a good thing for Google to have all of that info about you—including Web searches, Google Analytics data from your website, even location information? Mat Honan at Gizmodo says Google is clearly straying over the line toward being evil. Others say the changes mean the company is turning its back on privacy for selfish purposes. Some privacy advocates say the new policy is “frustrating and a little frightening.”

As the Economist notes in a piece on the privacy changes, one of the driving forces behind the sharing of information among Google services is that this will allow the search giant to more efficiently identify and target users for advertising—in other words, the goal Facebook has in offering many new features such as “frictionless sharing” apps and even the new Timeline personal history feature. This lies at the core of 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, tool?

Data Pooling: Pro and Con

Not everyone is critical of being targeted, however. Christopher Dawson at ZDNet, for example, enthusiastically favors Google’s information sharing; he says he wants the company to get better at identifying important or relevant information for him, including ads. For others, Google’s moves reinforce just how much the giant company knows about them, from browsing history to e-mail conversations. For those who want to “compartmentalize” their lives—reserving some services for personal use and others for business or public use—the pooling of information is a 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” allowing users to not take part in data sharing—which could become an issue for Google as regulators such as those in the European Union put greater 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? Whether or not you see Google’s new privacy policy as evil depends on how you define the company’s purpose: Is it to help users find information that is relevant to them? If so, pooling information is probably good. But if Google’s potential distortion of that purpose with personalized search and favoritism towards Google+ results makes you suspicious about its motives, it might look a little evil. In the end, you have to answer the question: “Does Google have my best interests at heart?”

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