Are the criticisms of Google’s new privacy policy fair?

Google announced last week that it is replacing its previous privacy policies, which differed across specific Google services, with one overall policy.

The new policy, available here, has come under criticism for allowing Google to share user data across its services (for instance, across services like Gmail and YouTube).

The pooling of information in this way, critics say, increases the attraction for advertisers, because adverts can be more targeted.

Microsoft has been particularly vocal in criticising the new policy, taking out full-page ads in several large American newspapers including Today, The Wall Street Journal and New York Times (v3.co.uk).

The new policy does include the ability for Google to share information across its services. For example:

We may combine the information you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services.

But, Google’s privacy policy has not changed in relation to sharing user data across services. In fact the rights for Google to share information across services goes back to at least 2004. See the 2004 Google Privacy Policy.

It is also important to note that Google does not appear to provide personal information directly to advertisers. What its privacy policy says, on this issue, is that it “may share aggregated, non-personally identifiable information publicly and with our partners – like publishers, advertisers or connected sites“. Google has also said that its “computers scan messages to get rid of spam and malware, as well as show ads that are relevant to you”. That is quite different to providing individual and personally identifying user information to advertisers.

It’s of course important that users are aware of the privacy policies and the terms and conditions that apply to the services they are using. But in some ways this negative publicity is ironic. As a user and as a legal adviser, I welcome having one consolidated privacy policy to consider for the range of Google services (excluding Postini it should be noted), instead of trawling through a number of policies. Perhaps the media attention just reflects a growing awareness of the issues around privacy and the Internet. And awareness of those issues is a good thing.

(Photo by Robert Scobie and licensed under a CC-BY 2.0 (Generic) licence.)

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