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Feb 1, 2012

Is Google Really Doing No Evil?

If you haven’t noticed, Google has been criticised and called downright evil as it makes some changes to its privacy policies. These latest critiques follow the release of “Search Plus Your World” (SPYW), a personalised search feature that seems to prioritise Google+ results over the relevant results that Google was so well known for.

In response to the critics, Google’s search chief Amit Singhal says SPYW is a new product with plenty of work and improvements to be made in the future. He encourages critics to think of the long-term potential of the product rather than focusing on the first 2 weeks of the launch.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates are speaking out against the latest changes to Google’s privacy policy and the amount of data that Google has already been collecting from its users, even before the policy changes.

So what does this all mean for Google?

Privacy Policy Changes

To sum it up, Google has consolidated over 60 separate privacy policies into a single, consistent, and easy to read policy. This move is intended to make the user’s experience more intuitive and helpful when they are signed into their Google account by collecting and sharing user data across an entire account rather than by site. The benefits, according to the official blog, include more relevant advertising, location-based reminders, and more accurate spelling suggestions.

Google will combine user data across Google services but they won’t be collecting any more data or behaviour information than they did before. Instead, they are using this data in new ways. Critics say that this information could be used by Google to create ads that are biased towards their own services – but this is highly unlikely, “given that Google ads are generally unobtrusive and have been based on user behaviour for years” (My Business).

Another major criticism revolves around the inability to opt out unless you are logged out of your Google account. That said, an opt-out setting is available if you prefer not to see ads based on your interests and demographics. And, according to Google:

You still have choice and control. You don’t need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube. If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to “off the record,” control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer.

So there you go, just log out! For a “skeptic’s guide to gaining back some privacy while continuing to be connected”, check out this article to maintain some privacy without becoming a Luddite.

Privacy in 2012

Whatever your take is on Google and its latest policies, these issues illustrate the importance of online privacy. Amit Singhal says that the negative atmosphere around SPYW is due to bloggers, while the user feedback given to Google has been positive, but we have yet to see if the public will respond to these Google changes with their feet – or should I say clicks? mice? – and delete their accounts.

In a non-scientific poll over on the Washington Post, 65% of the 17,962 respondents voted “Yes, I will cancel my Google Account because of the privacy changes”. Interesting to see where this goes on a larger, more long-term scale.
 

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