Google's New Privacy Policy: Ignore the Hysterics

Google's new privacy policy is prompting major-league hysterics among tech pundits. But the truth doesn’t justify the hype.  


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

Posted January 25, 2012

Mike Elgan

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Google announced yesterday a big change in privacy and user data across dozens of services.

The new system is causing confusion, and has triggered some hyperbolic, knee-jerk reactions by the tech-pundit echo chamber.

If you read the tech press, for example, you’ll be told that Google’s changes mean:

1. Google will follow you as you surf the web

2. Google will harvest more personal data about you

3. You can't opt out -- there's nothing you can do about it.

In a nutshell, here’s the silly overreaction of the week: Google is watching your every move to learn more about you and there's nothing you can do about it.

What’s Really Going On

Google is integrating services. That’s all.

Google currently has more than 60 different privacy-related "documents" for many different services. The new rules will unite them into one. The new policy goes into effect March 1.

The new, unified privacy policy guarantees that you can get access to your own data but others can't. Google also says they've written their new policy in plain language so that users can understand it.

In other words, as a privacy policy, it’s far better than average.

Google also announced that they will remove many of the user data walls that currently separate its wide range of services.

For example, when Google learns how you spell a name in Gmail, it will remember that spelling on other Google services. When it learns your preferences, location, interests and relationships on some Google services, it may use that knowledge to customize your experience on others, including contextual advertising.

When you log into to one Google service, you've logged into all of them. When you log out of one, you've logged out of all.

Here’s why the echo chamber is wrong about all this:

1. Google won't "follow you." You're simply logged in until you log out. That log in now fully applies to all Google services covered by this new unification.

2. Google won’t suddenly “harvest more personal data about you.” Let's say Google currently knows A about you on Gmail, B about you on YouTube and C about you on Search. Under the new system, Google will know ABC about you on each of those three services. But Google doesn't know more about you. They still know ABC about you, just as before.

3. Of course you can opt out. You can also log out, and log-out is now much more powerful. When you log out from, say, Gmail, you log out from everything.

This simplification and unification are all part of the "Larryfication" of Google -- changes driven by Google co-founder and now CEO Larry Page to improve the company’s prospects for surviving and thriving in the future.

Here’s What It Really Means

Google says the purpose of the changes is to "integrate our different products more closely so that we can create a beautifully simple, intuitive user experience across Google."

This statement says it all. According to Google's own online dictionary, the word "integrate" means to "Combine (parts) with another so that they become a whole."

Google products like Gmail and YouTube are the "parts" that are being combined with each other to produce a new "whole."

See how the word "Google" is used in the quote above? "Google" is now not only a company, but a place or product -- the "whole" which has been formed from the combining of parts.

So if Google is the product, that means Search, YouTube, Gmail, Google+ and others are to become mere features or services within the newly unified Google product.

Which raises the question: How can you tell when something is a product or a feature?

For example, when you use Facebook, that social network has an email service called Messages, and an instant-messaging service called Chat.

Are those separate products or are they integrated features or services of the larger product called Facebook? What's the verifiable metric for separating products from features?

I think a privacy policy is actually a pretty good indicator. Each product tends to have its own privacy policy.

Another great metric for any kind of Web 2.0 product, including social networks, is how user choices and actions are shared. Every product will leverage and reference user actions, settings and choices product-wide, but usually not outside the product.

Since Facebook has one privacy policy governing the social network that includes the use of Messages and Chat -- and because your settings and social behaviors are reflected in how Messages and Chat work -- you can safely say those services are features, not products.

So what Google is doing is moving products that used to be separate -- with separate privacy policies and silo’d use of user data -- into single products sharing both a single privacy policy and sharing user data.

That means the new super product is still separate from services that don't share the unified privacy policy. For example, Google Wallet is still separate, as are some other Google services.

Yesterday’s announcement isn’t the only clue to Google’s strategy of combining many products into one.

Google launched and is still rolling out a new, unified design, with a new bar across the top that brings together formerly separate products into options selectable from a drop-down menu. When you’re logged into Google, your name appears at the top left of the page.

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Tags: security, Google, Gmail, Privacy policy

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