on February 20, 2012
by Scot Ganow

Think Privacy: Google’s Upcoming Privacy Policy Change - Much Ado About Nothing?

Unless you live under a very large stone, I think I can reasonably establish the following assumptions about you:

  • You knew the Super Bowl was recently played.
  • You know this is an election year in the United States.
  • You know who Kim Kardashian is.
  • You do not know why you know who Kim Kardashian is (I know I don’t).
  • You use Google. Almost daily, if not multiple times daily.
  • You have used YouTube.

Google is the number one search engine. While the company did not participate in the recent “blackout” protest against the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the thought of Google not being available for 24 hours would freak out a lot of us.  Now what I also hope you also know about Google is that it recently proposed changes to its privacy policies, more specifically consolidating about 60 policies into one.  The new policy goes into effect March 1, 2012.

From a business perspective, this makes good compliance sense.  The consolidation of policies makes it easier for Google to be compliant with its own policies and the law when it comes to data collection and use.  It also makes it easier for consumers to understand how their information is used.  However, compliance is not the only focus here.  Most experts agree Google is trying to capitalize not only on the information it has in each of its services, but by improving its targeted marketing to users of its services by linking that data to better promote its advertising services and customer profiling to its sponsors. Changes to Google’s privacy policy allow the company to link user information from its e-mail and document services (G mail and Google Apps), video (YouTube) and social media (Buzz).  Currently, that data is governed by differing policies, generally prohibiting the linking of data.  The new policy will change that.

From a privacy policy perspective, the move gives me pause.  Any change in privacy practice should.  And, as with any change, you just have to weigh the impact on your personal values and exercise choice in accordance with your tolerance for collection and use of your personally identifiable information.  To that end, here are a few thoughts on what the change means.


            1.  You have to have an account to be impacted here.  Let’s be clear-the policy change only impacts registered users of a Google service.  So, you have to be logged into Gmail or YouTube for the new policy and the uses described therein to apply.  If you just use Google to do searches without logging into an account, there is no change as to Google’s posted practices.

            2.  Choice (Part 1).  The most glaring change is that you, the consumer, cannot exercise choice as you would in a traditional “opt in” model under universally-accepted best privacy practices. You cannot opt out of this policy and Google’s linking of your information.  The only choice you have is to not use Google.  This includes Gmail, YouTube, Google + and even Android phone web services.  And we all know (and Google is betting on this) that this is not likely to happen.

            3.  Choice (Part 2).  What you can do is manage your privacy settings in Google.  This has not changed.

            4.  Choice (Part 3).   Consider keeping a separate e-mail address tied to each Google service you use. The e-mail address is the common linking element.  So, if you have a separate address associated with your YouTube, G mail, Google +, etc, this will keep your information use practices from being linked.  (I am not saying this is a convenient choice, but it is a choice.)

            5.  Choice (Part 4).  Log out of all Google accounts before browsing the web.  Another option is to turn on private or incognito (Chrome) browsing to keep your web site history from being tracked and linked.

            6.  Where is the outrage?  One cannot ignore the fact people are not up in arms about this change.  With only a week or so to go, there has been far from a revolt as we saw with the Facebook changes to its privacy policy a few years back.

One reason could be because people actually like, or have become used to, the tailored services.  Secondly, people always say they value privacy more than they actually practice.  Studies have shown this quantitatively.  Lastly, overall, this really is not that much of a change from many of the practices already implemented by Google- as humorously pointed out here.  Google will not start selling your data or disclosing it to the public.

7.  Let’s recognize the good here.  As I began, let’s not ignore that consolidating multiple privacy policies into a single, easy to understand policy is a best practice for any company.  This improvement is not going unnoticed by privacy advocates either.  Furthermore, as you have read on this blog before, giving clear notice of your policy is another central tenant of privacy compliance.  Google is doing that here.  Google is also providing choices.  Maybe not great choices, but you can always seek other services.   Or, you can complain to the company.  Consumers have more of a voice than ever as we have discussed here before.

Lastly, this policy change is hardly a surprise to anyone.  Data is the hottest commodity going and any good business is always going to try to learn more about its customers to provide better services.  Google is doing that here and making sure privacy is addressed, at least in theory. This is good business.



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