Google’s new privacy policy means more sharing

Molly Wood Jan 26, 2012

Google is changing its approach to how it treats the information it gathers from you. The result of the change will likely be that Google knows a lot more about you than it used to. 

Traditionally, Google has had separate privacy policies and separate terms of service for each site it operates. YouTube has one agreement, Google News might use another, Google+ something else. The idea behind the new privacy policy is that it will cover all of Google. That will mean the different parts of Google will be free to use information about you with each other. 

“The classic example they’ve been rolling out to explain this is maybe you’ve done a lot of searches for skateboarding on Google web search,” says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, “and now you click over later in the day to the YouTube home page. YouTube can see maybe what you’ve been searching on on Google web search and say, oh, you’re really interested in skateboarding so I’m going to prepopulate the YouTube homepage perhaps with a lot of skateboard videos.”

Suddenly, your interest in Tony Hawk doing halfpipe tricks is showing up wherever you go on Google. “Potentially you start seeing him in other places, too,” says Sullivan. “For example, when you go out across the web, you have ads that are powered by Google that lots of websites show, and those advertisers have the ability to do what’s called retargeting or remarketing where they can say okay, I saw that you had clicked on an ad from Google, and then you came to my website, now you’re going to go off to other websites that use Google’s ad network, so I”m going to have my ad kind of follow you around.”

But at the same time Google is pooling its information about you, its giving you a little more control over what that information says. “One good thing about Google combining all of its many privacy policies into just a handful is that it surfaces really helpful innovative tools that allow users to sort of see what’s going on for themselves,” says Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet & Society.  

These are tools like Google Dashboard, which provides an index of Google+ information, Gmail information, Google Voice, YouTube, and just about everything else Google knows about you. The Ads Preferences Manager has an outline of who Google thinks you are and what topics you’re interested in. In my case, it estimated, based on the sites I visited, that I was a male, age 35 to 44, interested in movies, technology, smartphones, alternative music and pro basketball. Nailed me, Google. Flat nailed me.

Creepy that Google knows this? I suppose. But I can also edit that information, change my age, interests or even gender if I want to. Calo says, “These are tools that allow users to see what’s actually happening with their data, and so to the extent that Google’s new privacy policies surface these interactive tools, I think it’s an advantage.

And you can always drop out of the ad profiling entirely. Sullivan says, “Each property has a way where you can choose to opt in or opt out, and switch on or switch off different kinds of things that are collected, and that’s one of the new confusing things that will happen with this is that people may decide they may have to get more familiar with those sorts of things because they may choose to not want to have some of the information that’s currently being collected shared more broadly within Google.

Also in this program, thoughts on why everything has to be so complicated on sites that are supposed to be so simple. Google used to be easy, now it’s complex. Facebook succeeded because it was so simple, but now the social company says the Timeline feature will be mandatory on all accounts. So now we all have to be designers. I get that big companies like to hire smart people who want to build new things but maybe there’s a case to be made for just leaving simple things alone once in a while. 

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