Google Privacy Policy: What Actually Changed, and Why?

» Posted by on Feb 13, 2012 in Marketing | 0 comments

Google Privacy Policy: What Actually Changed, and Why?

If you’ve turned on your computer recently, you’ve probably noticed that Google is trying to get your attention to let you know about their privacy changes.  We wrote here about the opportunities for business presented by the changes, but realized that most consumers are unaware of what the changes mean to them.

In a move of (suspiciously) open communication, Google has given fair warning and posted a copy of their privacy policy here.  We can’t, after the changes go into effect March 1, complain that nobody told us!  But if you are among the millions who won’t click on the link, or who will give up trying to figure out what they’re talking about after the first six paragraphs, here’s the summary of changes.

The money quote is in the very first sentence: “This Privacy Policy applies to all of the products, services and websites offered by Google Inc. or its subsidiaries or affiliated companies except Postini (Postini Privacy Policy).”  I’d be willing to bet that most people haven’t followed every acquisition Google has made over the last few years, and they may not realize the extent of Google’s reach.   The list is two columns, small print, and includes not only every aspect of Google’s primary offerings (think IM, Calendar, Docs, Reader) and search capabilities (not only web search but images, videos, shopping, maps, Google Earth) but products that don’t carry the Google name, like Picasa, YouTube, Sketchup, and Blogger.

A detailed examination of the policy itself is interesting.  The truth is that the policy hasn’t changed much from October 2010 to October 2011 – the primary changes involve the definition of the “Safe Harbor” certification, which seems to have changed from a US Department of Commerce regulation to now incorporate regulations from the EU.

A comparison of the March 11, 2009 policy with the October 3, 2010 policy shows that most of the significant changes in tone and policy actually occurred two years ago.  Starting in the very first sentence, displayed in the comparison documents like this:

At Google we recognize that privacy is important.

It’s in the 2010 policy that Google lays out for the first time the extent of the data gathering that they do.  Personal information is gathered via entered information, cookies, log information (IP address), GPS signals, cell phone ID’s.  For the first time they outline in this policy that they may also use all of the information that you send via SMS, including your phone number, wireless carrier, and yes – the content of your messages. They introduce the concept of a unique application number, applied by Google when you download something like the Google Toolbar, which includes information about your operating system.

Good stuff for an Orwellian sci fi movie, except that it should be old news.

The fact that all of this personal information is going to be sold to advertisers who will use it to sell you stuff shouldn’t be news either.  But tucked into the section titled “Information You Provide” we see this: “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.”  Now that the products and services listing fills two columns and requires a scroll to see the entire thing, the idea of combining the information gathered from each of them is unsettling in its magnitude.

So what’s the real change in Google’s privacy policy?  It’s back there in the very first sentence: “This Privacy Policy applies to all of the products, services and websites offered by Google Inc. or its subsidiaries or affiliated companies except Postini (Postini Privacy Policy).”    The policy always applied to Google.  But other products, such as Picasa or YouTube may have had privacy policies that were more…private.   Now all previous agreements are invalidated, and the data provided to any application or product owned by Google belongs to Google.

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