Google Changes Its Privacy Policy: Are You Now More Or Less Protected?

We’ve come to expect changes from Google over the last couple of years.

If it’s not another algorithm update; it’s a policy statement about content management or white hat SEO. It’s almost as if Google takes some sort of perverse pleasure in keeping us all on our toes. Well, the search giant hasn’t disappointed. From the 1st March, 2012, Google’s privacy policy will change. What the search engine is advising is that its current range of separate privacy policies which number 60 in total will be replaced by a single policy.

The logic behind this change is that Google believes it will make its new policy shorter and much easier to read.

It’s quoted as saying that the new policy will cover a multitude of products and features, and reflect its desire to create a beautifully simple and intuitive experience right across the platform. On the face of it this doesn’t sound too drastic, does it? If it makes it easy to search and find relevant results quicker, then surely we should all be happy as Larry. Well, the lawyers seem not to think so: they regard this move as nothing more than an underhand way in which the search engine can use the consolidated data to more effectively target consumers and therefore boost its advertising revenue. So, what is the truth? Is Google merely looking to make its use of data easier, or is it, as the lawyers claim, breaking the terms of the privacy policy it agreed with the Federal Trade Commission last year after the bungled rollout of its own social network Buzz?

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What does Google’s new privacy policy claim to do?

The search engine claims that the new changes will benefit users in a number of ways and make the search experience better for all concerned.

  • It will make it easier to work right across the Google platform. The new privacy policy creates a single, easy-to-use platform for users. It will do what users ask it to do, but now do it much quicker and more effectively. There will now be a consolidation between all of its different applications like email, Gmail, Calendar. Search and YouTube. This will make the user experience altogether a better experience.
  • Google searches will be individually tailored for each user. Anyone signed into the platform will be able to tailor their searches and obtain more relevant results, as Google will base its results on the preferences the users have already expressed or indicated on other applications like Google+, Gmail or YouTube. The use of pre-held information will enable Google to search faster and more productively.
  • The new policy will make it easier to share and collaborate with friends and contacts. Whenever you post a document online, you may want others to see it, or to contribute or advise in some way. Google’s new policy will mean that it will be able to share this information on the user’s behalf with little effort and fewer clicks. It can do this because it retains the contact information of those people it believes you may want to share with.

Google maintains that its privacy policy has not changed in principle, despite the changes. It claims to remain committed to protecting this information and aims to be as transparent as possible. Its aim is to offer users choice, through products like Google Dashboard and Ads preference Manager along with other tools. Moreover Google claims it will never sell personal information or share it with others without the express consent of the individual user, except where legal requirements demand this.

What are the criticisms?

U.S lawyers have complained to Google about concerns that the planned consolidation of user information may make it more difficult for consumers to protect their privacy. They plan to ask the Federal Trade Commission whether Google’s planned changes violate Google’s recent settlement with the agency. The settlement stipulated that Google required consent if it collected all its personal information under one policy, then tried to change that policy. What the lawyers are concerned about is whether the consumer will have sufficient power and protection under the new policy. They want assurances from the search engine that users will be able to opt out if they wish, and they also want to be assured that the information is secure and protected. They have subsequently written to Google for clarification.

Google has already responded through policy manager, Betsy Masiello, and insisted that users do retain ‘choice’ and ‘control’. The statement issued was quoted by Reuters News Agency:

“We’re not collecting more data about you. Our new policy simply makes it clear that we use data to refine and improve your experience on Google,” she commented. “We’re making things simpler and we’re trying to be upfront about it. Period.”

Are the lawyer’s fears justified, or are they making a mountain out of a molehill? Well, only time will tell. What’s for sure is that Google’s advertising revenues won’t suffer as a result. That is, unless the FTC start playing hardball again.

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