On March 1, 2012, Google’s new privacy policy went into effect, permitting the company to peer deeper into the private lives of its more than one billion users. And the world did not end. So what do the changes really mean?

Since announcing its new policy, Google has repeatedly asserted that the new privacy policy does not increase the amount of information collected about individual users. Google continues to collect the same data on its users as before (which is a surprisingly copious and inclusive amount of information). Users may view their personal data profiles on Google Dashboard.

Merely saying that more is not being collected, however, does not mean that the changes are harmless. Google’s new privacy policy permits the company to use information from across its services, meaning what a user does on YouTube, Google Docs, or Gmail will be visible and usable to the other services. When considered with a view on Google’s sixty services that will be sharing information, it becomes clear just how much compiled information Google will have on each user. It will have a record of a considerable amount of personal, work, financial, and medical information from its users, available in one place and to all of its services.

And here’s the bitter pill: don’t like it? Tough. If you have a smartphone running an Android system, all Android phones were automatically placed under the new policy. To the consumer this means that if you do not like the new policy, your options are to deal with it, switch to non-Google services which do not typically run well on the Android system, or to get another phone. The latter option will normally require terminating your phone service and paying an early-termination fee.

And if you are a user of Google Docs, Gmail, or any other of Google’s sixty services, you cannot opt out either. You can either accept the privacy policy or look for a another provider of the services you use. In fact, if you have continued to use Google services since March 1st, you have already consented. While appearing like a rational, market-based solution on its surface, forcing consumers to accept or switch is far more complex when considering the virtual absence of comparable substitutes for many of Google’s products. Hoping to find a friend’s video while avoiding  YouTube? Open up an email sent to your Gmail account without Google storing it? Open a Google Doc without Google adding the details to your online behavioral profile? Good luck.

Most concerning of all is the fact that there is little legal restraint for Google’s privacy policy change. Due to a settlement reached between the Federal Trade Commission and Google in 2010 regarding Google Buzz, the FTC now annually audits Google on privacy matters. Such auditing seems to have done little to dissuade Google from its present course, however. It remains unclear whether the FTC approved the changes; however, what is clear is that Google was confident enough with its legal position to institute the changes without further delay. In fact, to those who have challenged the changes’ implement, Google nonchalantly dismissed their criticism, calling it mere “chatter and confusion.”

Even if Google’s change doesn’t violate American laws, foreign authorities have been adamant that the changes violate European transparency and privacy laws. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of the European Commission has been particularly outspoken about her doubts of the changes’ legality. Other members have warned Google of the same, requesting a delay in the policies implementation. None was granted.

Although the legality of Google’s new policy remains unresolved, the question Google really should also be asking is whether the policy is really in its best interest. Behavioral privacy is something highly valued by the vast majority of consumers. Although Google expects its data to be more lucrative and hopes to tap the unused potential of its data goldmine, to simply force consumers to either shut up or get out is not the right policy, particularly where a considerable amount of consumer privacy may be at stake. Only time will tell whether Google’s risk will pay off.

In the mean time, Google was right about at least one thing: this stuff matters.

– Tim Van Hal

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4 Responses to Google’s Privacy Policy Change: This Stuff Matters

  1. Kendall Short says:

    I agree that these changes to the privacy policy are troubling given the lack of information forthcoming from Google about exactly what they plan to use the information for. I have doubts, however, about exactly how many and how deeply people will care about these changes. We’ve all readily accepted terms of service for various things without even glancing at them, and I assume most of us have continued using our Gmail and other Google services despite having some alternative options for mail, chat, and document services at least. It might be desirable for Google to offer an opt-out feature or something similar, but if they choose not to offer that, then for all the talk, I fear people will actually do very little to resist the changes. There is a point we all have to reach in how much we’re willing to trade off our privacy for better service, and right now it seems like better service has won.

    • Marina Visan says:

      I agree with Kendall. I think that it is important to look at the population at large, and generally, it does not seem like many people take the trouble to look into privacy settings or make any sort of fuss about it. Take Facebook, for example. While we, as law students, are constantly being told to be cautious about what we post and to make our profiles private because of impressions they might create to potential employers, I don’t think this type of privacy awareness is stressed to the population at large. Many people will even accept friend requests from complete strangers or simply make their profiles public for anyone to see. It is ironic that the European Commission is so outspoken about this, because I think that Europeans are possibly even more unaware of the consequences of posting public information online. I’m European and have many European friends on Facebook, and the large majority of them have public profiles. Also, the large majority of unknown friend requests are from Europeans. I just think that they might not be fully aware of the consequences of publicizing everything or that perhaps the consequences aren’t so grave there. I’m not sure what it is, but either way, it seems like a lot of people just don’t bother with it. I think this is terribly unfortunate and that people should become aware of the implications of publicizing private information. However, for now, companies like Google seem to definitely have won.

  2. Mike Dearington says:

    Great post, Tim! I agree with you and Tom in that Google may have a stronghold right now over consumers who would otherwise use another service provider, but that this may not be the best move for Google in the long run.

    Google is at risk of losing PR capital over these measures. And the measures may be contrary to Google’s mission of “organiz[ing] the world’s information and mak[ing] it universally accessible and useful,” which seems to promote transparency. Indeed, we are currently unaware of what the compiled information will ultimately be used for, except that it aids Google’s extant marketing schemes. And as for that, perhaps Google saw shortcomings in its previous mapping. For instance, Google believed I was a 65+ male based on my searches, etc., which is approximately 40 years off.

    On the other hand, perhaps service providers will enjoy a ratchet effect when it comes to dealing with users. Users may grow accustomed to each new privacy measure and gradually accept greater intrusions over time. That is one reason why one hopes the FTC will prevent oversteps.

  3. Tom B. says:

    Great post. This clarifies what changes Google actually made to its privacy policy. Although I was aware of the changes, I had not yet taken the time to figure out exactly what they were.

    It is frustrating that consumers are left with virtually no other choice other than to accept the changes. However, you raise a great point in asking whether forcing the privacy changes on consumers is the best course of action. Even though most people probably do not have much of a choice in alternative service providers right now, they will quickly recall their frustration when an alternative choice presents itself. Google’s actions are clearly another hit to individual privacy and it will be interesting to see just how much American consumers will tolerate.