One Privacy Policy To Rule Them All: What Google’s Controversial New Terms of Service Could Mean To You

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    “Don’t be evil.”

    Those three words have long served as Google’s unofficial mission statement — a message to doubters that even a megacorporation with absolute market dominance can still be an exemplar of benevolent capitalism. But last week, when the search engine giant announced updates to its privacy policies and terms of service, the blogosphere erupted with fears that Google had finally gone Big Brother on us. Why? Right now, data collected from Google account members by each of its subsidiary products (Google Search, Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, YouTube, etc.) is compartmentalized: Even though you log in to each service with the same account, the data is collected separately. But under the terms of the new privacy policy that goes into effect March 1, all members’ personal data is aggregated across those products, creating one mega-profile across the entire Google brand, and not everyone is convinced that Google’s motivation is as pure and squeaky-clean as its stated goal of creating a “beautifully simple, intuitive” user experience.

    “There’s a rather reflexive panic-mongering that happens around a) privacy, and b) the net, and c) Google,” says media commentator and What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis of the backlash the company received last week to news of the change.

    EW dug into the new privacy guidelines to determine what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and what you can do, if necessary, to protect yourself and your information. Here’s what we found out:

    What to expect if you have a Google account

    Google’s subsidiary products have always collected data from Google account members based on information they input, search queries they run, pages they visited, etc. On one hand, privacy advocates actually could take heart, because the new policy shows a movement by Google toward transparency and simplicity regarding its use of user data. It essentially condenses 70 separate policies — one for each subsidiary Google product, like YouTube or Gmail — into a single company-wide master policy. “There’s nothing new about Google sharing data within the company,” says Jarvis, who also founded Entertainment Weekly in 1990. “That has been its policy. Google has now simplified and clarified its policies by bringing them together and standardizing how they operate.”

    The concern, however, is due to the fact that each Google product will now share that information with the other Google products, creating a detailed profile of each user based on the personal information gleaned from use of those products. So if you’re logged in and run a Google Search for Lady Gaga, the next time you visit YouTube you may find Lady Gaga music videos or TV appearances suggested for you, even though you haven’t previously searched for her on YouTube itself. Or, say you’re thinking about buying a new car and have been running a Google Product Search. Google will remember your search history, so the next time you type in “Jaguar,” the car company will pop up first, not a Wikipedia entry on a big cat. The only products to still have separate privacy policies? Google Wallet and Google Books, which will not share data with other company services. Nor will the Google Chrome browser.

    It’s the advertising, stupid

    The enhanced ability to create a personalized profile does potentially create a more convenient and personalized experience with Google products. “This really is a positive thing,” Craigslist founder Craig Newmark tells EW. “It makes it easier for them to serve people better.”

    But some experts say that Google is doing this, in part anyway, to further monetize its users. “People need to understand that when you’re not paying for something on the Internet, you yourself are the product,” says new-media scholar Dan Gillmor.

    Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson points out that personalized advertisements targeted directly to a specific user, based on user-collected information, can be “a substantial amount” more lucrative than just an anonymous ad. And with all the information Google can collect about your interests from your searches, your Google Docs, and your favorite YouTube videos, they can figure out pretty specifically what ads they should show you. “They are positioning this as streamlining privacy,” Simpson says. “But that’s just PR. It’s all about better targeting for advertisers.”

    How do you opt out?

    There’s only one way to opt out: Close your account and take your data elsewhere. Google is not allowing its account holders to opt in or opt out of the new data-sharing policy. Though some of the experts we spoke to found that potentially problematic, a representative for Google tells EW that the lack of an opt-in is pretty standard in this situation. “The way this works is that if you use the service, you implicitly agree to the terms of service,” says the rep, who wished to remain anonymous. “If iTunes pops up with an update, you have to agree to those terms of service. How do you go about opting out of their terms of service while continuing to use iTunes? You can’t.”

    Actually, there are other ways to semi opt out. You can use different browsers when using different services: Google products only communicate with one another if they have the same default browser. Or simply log out of your account. Installing cookie-blocking and ad-blocking software can stymie part of Google’s data collection as well.

    When it comes to sharing your information with third-party advertisers, Google does in fact allow you to opt out. Its Ads Preferences Manager keeps a record of the different ad categories into which you’ve been placed, based on your Google account history — and even your logged-out browser history, in general — allowing you to opt out or suggest different ad categories into which you could be placed.

    And Google says it’s still very committed to the idea of “data liberation.” That is, if you do wish to close your account at any time, you can easily export all of your data to one of Google’s competitors. “There’s clearly a group of people inside the company who are major advocates for data liberation,” Gillmor says. “I still believe that they mean it when they say, ‘Don’t be evil.’”

    You can keep track of how Google’s keeping track of you

    Log in to Google Dashboard and you can find out exactly what data Google has about you across all its services. For you Android handset owners, there’s even an Android section that allows you to see what information Google has collected about you via your smartphone or tablet.

    Speaking of Android, there’s really no way to opt out of these privacy changes on my Android phone, right?

    Yeah, pretty much. “This is holding Android OS users hostage,” says Simpson. The problem is that Android phones typically require apps that demand you be logged in to your Google account in order to function. Most Android phone users automatically employ Gmail, Contacts, or Calendar, so your device ID, your phone number, the date it was registered, and even the location of the device at any given moment can be associated with your Google account. Jarvis says, “I do believe there are benefits that come to users: When you ask for pizza on your Android phone, it’s only helpful that Google knows where you are so it can tell you where the nearest pizza is rather than giving you a Wikipedia history of the pie.”

    But if this still makes you uncomfortable, there’s yet another way around it. Back up the files on your phone, then perform a factory data reset. That will dump all of your settings, data, and apps. Then you’ll just avoid signing in with your Google account and download a non-Google app store. You can disable Google’s location service, set another default search engine, add a mail client from a non-Google vendor, load the settings and profile data Google has allowed you to export into your new apps, and you’ve been well and truly de-Googled.

    Sure, nothing will change if you don’t have a Google account. But Google still knows a lot about you.

    That’s right. If you don’t have a Google account, these changes in their Terms of Service won’t affect you at all. But you may want to know a little bit more about what information Google can still collect from you, even without being logged into an account. When doing a standard Google Search, the company receives anonymous information such as search queries, and the IP address of where the search query came from, that’s kept in logs for a limited amount of time. As Google’s representative told EW, “We basically know what people have searched on Google so we can build products like Google Trends that follow the history of searches.”

    When you run a Google Search, it installs cookies into your browser that sets the language you searched in, the Google domain you searched in, and keeps track of what websites you visit to personalize advertisements for you. Yes, even if you don’t have an account at all, Google can still collect enough data about you from your searches to determine your age, gender, location, and ad categories into which you should be placed. Again, you can opt out of this by visiting Google’s Ads Preferences Manager. But quite frankly, most people who aren’t Google account members never even think that they have the ability to opt out — or even know whether information is being collected about them in the first place.

    Don’t worry, your Gmail is safe. For now, anyway.

    One worry is that, with all of Google’s new data sharing, the company may even scan the contents of e-mails received via Gmail to learn more about you for advertiser targeting. “That’s definitely a possibility,” the Google rep tells EW. “But we haven’t done that yet. If we were to do that, we would announce it and offer you the transparency and choice we give you for all of our advertising products. But we think something like that would be a really good user experience.” The idea being that, to take the Jaguar example again, you receive a lot of e-mails from car companies, so the next time you type in “Jaguar” to Google Search, the car company will pop up first. It seems pretty obvious, though, that most people wouldn’t be willing to trade the privacy of their own e-mails for slightly increased search engine efficiency. “If I found out a company was doing that I would switch e-mail providers in a microsecond,” says Gillmor, the new-media scholar.

    In conclusion

    These new terms of service follow the social contract of the Internet era: You pay to use Google’s services, not with money but with your very identity. If you don’t want to pay, then you won’t receive Google’s services. By highlighting the transparency of their data-sharing process, Google seems to be giving itself license to learn more about you and make more money off of you, however indirectly.

    His track record has shown that CEO Larry Page is responsible enough to effectively implement these policies without causing any particular harm to Google users. “I don’t think the policy is necessarily worse in any single respect,” says Gillmor. “But it nevertheless feels like a big step toward a single enterprise knowing an incredible amount about its users. That always carries risks.” Indeed. Page has agreed to lead the company only through 2024, and there’s nothing to prevent whoever succeeds him from using all of your information with more mercenary intentions. Something to think about when cultivating your virtual identity via Google.

    Are you concerned by the new Terms of Service? And, if so, what kind of action have you taken?

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