Google Privacy Changes Raise Major Concerns, Possible Antitrust Complaint

Yesterday afternoon, Alma Whitten, Google's Director of Privacy, posted a blog entry stating that the company is preparing a major overhaul and simplification of its various privacy policies. According to the entry, Google is planning to condense the current crop of 70 separate policies into a single, easy-to-read agreement.

In and of itself, this is a Good Thing, but her following statements raise serious concerns. "Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

She continues:

"We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it’s January, but maybe you’re not a gym person, so fitness ads aren’t that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends’ names, are accurate because you’ve typed them before."

The following video explains the change, relevant information starts at ~30s.

Policy vs. Practice:

This is more a change of practice than policy. Google's privacy statements going back to 2005 have always allowed the company to collate your personal information and use it to personalize the information it shows you. Gmail has always performed keyword analysis to target Google Ads, for example. What Google is doing here is expanding the types of data it collects and how that data is combined to boost advertising revenue.

The company's timing is particularly poor. Google has already been criticized this year for making Google+ mandatory for registering for a Google account and for introducing the new "Search + Your World" feature as a default setting. For those of you who aren't aware, SPYW inserts results from your friends list into standard search results.

This new blanket change is further evidence that Google is trying to pump up its ad revenue and compete with Facebook. The problem is, this smacks of the latter's heavy-handed approach to privacy and personal information. Google is going to integrate all of this data, and if you use the company's services, you're cordially invited to like it--or start using Bing. While SPYW can be deactivated, the new privacy policy isn't something you can opt out of.

Whether or not these changes matter depends on your point of view. The following screenshots are from my own personal Google account. I searched for the word "SOPA" and screenshotted the results.

There's a number of differences between the two. Turning off SPSW shows me a total of eight stories rather than just five. By interleaving Google+ results and an 'Images' link in between the regular results, content that would otherwise be near the top of the page is shoved downwards. This matters--studies have shown that only about 10% of users ever click "Page 2" of search results.

Google claims that combining advertising data is part of creating a "beautifully simple, intuitive user experience." We're deeply dubious, given the company's other recent announcements. Strong-arming users into using your products and services, then claiming its for their own benefit has a very 1990s Microsoft sort of ring to it; Google may be trying to mandate the growth of its own social network. Expect other companies to raise hell over this change, given that it concentrates still more power in Google's hands when it comes to how products are advertised across its ad network.
Tags:  Google, Facebook, Privacy