Google's New Privacy Policy: Ignore the Hysterics

Wednesday Jan 25th 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Google's new privacy policy is prompting major-league hysterics among tech pundits. But the truth doesn’t justify the hype.  

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.

Google’s social network, Google+, started some pretty dramatic integrations by combining Profiles with Gmail and YouTube. Since that service launched, the company has been integrating services like Reader, Voice and others into the service.

And, of course, Google has brought Search into Google+, and Google+ into Search.

So why is Google doing this?

Google doesn’t want to become Yahoo.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Yahoo was the hottest company in Silicon Valley. But Yahoo launched and acquired so many services and brands, which it failed to unify or bring together in any coherent way, that the company’s mission, purpose and identity became unidentifiable.

The second reason is that major Silicon Valley companies -- including Google, Apple and others – have promised a breathtaking future of artificial intelligence virtual assistants anticipating our every desire and going out into the world for us, acting on our behalf.

Over time, Google will integrate agency -- the initiative that the Google of the future will take to act via one service based on information from another. For example, Google Calendar might find out you're going to be late for your meeting by checking your location on Google Latitude, and offer to use Google Voice to connect a call to the person you're meeting with.

Virtual assistants will relay private messages for you, and buy things using your credit card.

You won’t have to go search Google, then sort through a million results. You’ll just tell your phone: “Find a good restaurant for Tuesday’s lunch meeting.” Google will know you, what you like, where you’ll be and what your budget is. It will also know all this for the people you’re meeting with, and take care of all the details.

This virtual assistant Nirvana requires free-flowing information among a wide variety of services.

And it has to be the same “you” on every service. Identity makes it all possible.

How You Can Understand This Better

If you want light, ignore the noise. The tech pundit echo chamber will grow louder and louder on this over the next few months, with each expert trying to out-panic the others. (By this time next year nobody will even remember the controversy.)

Meanwhile, if you're concerned about what Google knows about you, check your account using a tool the company makes available called the Google Dashboard.

Also: Google itself will give you tools and information to help you manage your own privacy and activity online. Just go here.

So brace yourself for some major-league hysterics over the new Google policy. You’ll be told that Google is Big Brother, that the policy ignores user choice and preference and that you’re being coerced into a dystopian online existence.

In reality, Google is merely consolidating and unifying far-flung services to create a single, personalized experience across Google properties that will keep the company relevant and enable it to move to the next phase in the evolution of the Internet. And the company is doing so in a transparent manner that I wish more companies would embrace.

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