Google’s New Privacy Policy: Who Wins?

Posted by · January 25, 2012 2:54 pm

Tuesday afternoon, Google Privacy Director Alma Whitten took to The Official Google Blog to announce that the web giant will be updating its privacy policies and terms of service.

“This stuff matters, so we wanted to explain what’s changing, why and what these changes mean for users,” Whitten began.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

This simplification process will include the consolidation of 60-plus privacy documents into one, all-inclusive “main Privacy Policy”, as well as an increase in the number of Google products that are to be covered by a “new main Google Terms of Service”. In order to make this initiative digestible for Google users, Whitten complemented her post with a brief video:

While such changes to Google’s product policies and terms will certainly make them “more consistent, easier to read and easier to understand,” the effects of this new one-size-fits-all approach are far more widespread. And starting March 1st, those of us with Google Accounts may find ourselves longing for the days when each Google product had its own set of policies and terms.

Less Isn’t Always Best

While buzzwords like “efficiency” and “streamlining” are sure to draw the attention of executives looking to maximize gains and consumers looking to save money, such a preoccupation with simplicity does have its drawbacks. The introduction of “shorter, simpler” policies by Google may seem great, at least at first. The idea of actually being able to read an entire privacy policy and the terms of use in minutes—all without a lawyer—is a dream come true. And thanks to the regulators that Whitten mentions in her blog post, that is increasingly becoming the standard across the Web.

Nevertheless, just as in the examples above, Google’s new “shorter, simpler” strategy is replete with unfortunate consequences for consumers. While Whitten does not hide the fact that Google may take the liberty to capture user information from one Google service and combine it with information from another, she does so only in a light that seems as if the benefits are all for the user.

“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” she surmised.

But beyond the talk of more personalized searching, more relevant advertising, and important meeting reminders, this compulsory integration of Google’s services forces users to cede control of their information to an entity whose track record is hardly impeccable.

Considering last year’s FTC settlement over charges that Google Buzz “used deceptive tactics and violated its own privacy promises” which subjected Google to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years—not to mention the ongoing anti-trust probe taking place in Washington—it’s probably safe to say that these changes were ill-timed at best.

To make matters worse—or better if you’re Google—users will not be allowed to opt out of any new policy changes. This means that, starting March 1st, Google users will see information input on one website being used on a completely unrelated website, simply because Google owns both. Whether a user likes it or not, Google will be allowed to collect, store and combine his or her information every time s/he logs into a Google-owned website or activate an Android-powered device. According to the new terms of use, users consent to Google tracking their location, sending cookies that monitor web activity to their devices and even collect “device-specific information” from user devices.

In exchange for policies and terms that the average user can actually read, Google has taken the liberty to use as it pleases the information that users have intentionally provided to some websites while withholding the same from others.

Recourse? What Recourse?

Scarcely have consumers been placed in such a unique predicament as this. While Google might make it clear that users may cancel their accounts and take their personal information elsewhere, the sobering reality is that it’s become almost impossible to live beyond Google’s reach. No doubt finding another place to send and receive email would be simple, but finding another Facebook alternative or a place to share videos besides YouTube would be extremely difficult to say the least.

Furthermore, as Android devices become more ubiquitous in the mobile market, consumers who now wish to free themselves from Google’s yoke are left without real selection.

In other words, whether it’s by design or not, Google has made its way into such a place that it can change policies and terms without having to be concerned about a devastating amount of user flight. This, of course, isn’t because they’re better than everyone else at everything they do, but instead because nobody else does everything that they do.

Until now, however, Google’s massive holdings haven’t been so great a cause for concern to much of the public. With separate policies and terms governing its separate services, users were still able to decide which Google services to use, and of those services, which ones were privy to what personal information.

Unless users happen to want the “simpler, more intuitive Google experience” as Google alone has defined it, they must now make a choice that no truly free market would ever force on a consumer. Either they must accept the new terms that an all-powerful Google has forced on its users, or they must part with the entire experience of the Internet that they’ve come to know, simply because Google owns it.

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