Privacy Advocates Fiercely Furrow Brows at Google

Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Google is making its privacy policies uniform across many of its services and tearing down the walls between them to allow for the sharing of user data. Google contends that the move toward consolidation will improve search and serve users better. “This is typical Google bluster and bafflegab,” Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson countered.

    Google will consolidate about 60 of its privacy policies across its products in March, creating one overarching policy and leaving only about another 10 unchanged for legal and other reasons.

    The company is also changing its terms of service (TOS). It may combine information on Google account holders across all the company’s services the account holder uses.

    This will provide a simpler, more intuitive Google experience and also let the company serve users better, it claims.

    The announcement of the changes sparked concern among privacy watchdogs both in the United States and the European Union.

    “Consumers’ online privacy is being eroded,” growled John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

    “Google finally stopped pretending it’s concerned about protecting privacy,” stated Jeffrey Chester, asserted executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Winning its battle against Facebook to remain king of the Web requires it to escalate the digital arms race.”

    The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland will “be further assessing the implications of the changes,” organization spokesperson Ciara O’Sullivan told TechNewsWorld.

    You Gotta Serve Somebody

    Google justifies its privacy policy consolidation by saying regulators are calling for shorter, simpler privacy policies, and having one policy covering several products is fairly standard practice across the Internet.

    Consolidating all information about a user across all Google’s services will improve search, help Google provide more relevant ads, and in general let Google serve consumers better, the company contends.

    “This is typical Google bluster and bafflegab,” Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson told TechNewsWorld. “It’s all about maximizing the way they see the data they have amassed.”

    Did We Get Served?

    The Internet giant’s moves have little to do with improved service, the CDD’s Chester contends.

    “To stoke ad revenues, Google must pull together its vast storehouse of user information, combining all the data it holds on every single user,” Chester told TechNewsWorld. “Its DoubleClick Ad exchange depends on profiting from the sales of richer profiles.”

    That data consolidation could also imperil users’ security because “if there’s a breach, the hacker can get all the data in [what amounts to] one-stop shopping,” Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson suggested.

    On the other hand, Google already lists a considerable amount of data about a user in Google Dashboard.

    Running Like the Wind

    Users can opt out of ads even when the new consolidated user profiles kick in.

    They can install the Google advertising cookie opt-out plugin in their browsers. Or they can visit Google’s Ads Preferences Manager to select the ads they want to see served up.

    However, “Google’s Ads Preferences Manager is a PR stunt,” Consumer Watchdog’s Simpson declared. “It stops the serving of behavioral ads, not the gathering of data. We need a strict do-not-track mechanism that prevents the collection of data when enabled, with serious consequences if the user’s wishes are violated.”

    There’s apparently a user backlash going on against Google’s planned changes. An informal Washington Post poll on Wednesday found that 66 percent of the roughly 13,500 readers who responded said they’d cancel their Google accounts because of the new policies.

    Show Me the Money

    Google might be looking for anything that could help it improve ad sales.

    The company missed both its revenue and earnings targets this last quarter despite record U.S. online commerce volumes during the holiday season, registering a fall in earnings from marketers for the first time in two years. The news sent Google share prices sliding.

    Google’s planned consolidation of user data across all its properties “is definitely a move to improve targeting and hence improve ad revenues,” Simon Khalaf, president and CEO of Flurry Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. “It [will] also defend the Google franchise from ad offerings that Facebook offers today or might offer in the future.”

    That data consolidation is not necessarily ground-breaking. “Facebook does track its users across all its services and hence is able to better target [them],” Khalaf pointed out. “Google wants to offer similar, if not better, services.”

    Google did not respond to our request for further details.

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