Google’s privacy changes – should you be worried?

2 Mar 2012

The changes to Google’s privacy policies – effectively whittling 70+ down to one cohesive policy – has certainly caused a furor that I’m sure the search giant had been expecting. But should ordinary folk be so duly concerned as to delete their accounts?

Google has enough PR people and lawyers to fight its battles. The question really should be who is looking after the user’s rights in all of this.

Vivian Reding? Well, the EU Commissioner helped put the cats among the pigeons warning that the search giant is “sneaking away” people’s privacy. But is she right?

The French data protection authority CNIL says the new policy does not meet the requirements of a 1995 European directive on data protection.

The first thing I would say about that is how does a directive drafted in 1995 compare with 2012? Do the new EU data retention rules, for example, with fines of up to 2pc of global turnover not act as a sufficient deterrent?

So what is Google doing here? Well, in 1998 Google only required one privacy policy.

When the company started growing, building new services like Gmail and buying other companies such as Blogger and YouTube it amassed a considerable array of new policies.

This continued to a point where over a month ago the company revealed that it has over 70 different privacy documents covering a range of different products.

For practicality’s sake and to make life easier for users – few of whom actually read the privacy policies and instead click ‘accept’ – the company reasoned that it made sense to consolidate these into one.

Fair enough. However, what has resulted is a realisation that Google can now pool data related to YouTube video searches, general web searches, map directions, etc. And let’s not forget the vast volume of information that can be generated about an Android user in terms of mapping and cell information, voice messages and search on a mobile device.

Reding has warned that she doubts this change is legal, but she has also pointed out that the 1995 directive is out of touch with the world in 2012.
So should users be concerned, should they close their accounts?

Don’t be evil

I don’t think so. Companies like Google and Facebook come in for a lot of flack every time there is a change to privacy policies. And quite rightly, they are looking after people’s private information. That is a hell of a responsibility.

Nevertheless I believe it is good healthy and public debate that is essential to ensure Google sticks to its own mantra – ‘Don’t be evil.’
Google itself knows that it trades on people’s good will. Any slip in that, any mere betrayal of that good will or that trust would be fatal. Google is not going to mess with that. So your data is safe.

The real question, one that’s not being asked, is: by pooling all this information does Google have a competitive advantage over the myriad of other players in the industries it touches on – for example in the smartphone space, the online advertising space, the media industry, etc – once it has merged these privacy policies.

That’s the ultimate question.

The reason is simple – Google is in these industries because it derives revenue from sending targeted advertising to various platforms. That’s why it makes mobile operating systems, desktop operating systems and TV operating systems. That’s why it buys gigantic video sites and wants to get into the content game. That’s why it makes incredibly useful servies like Gmail and Docs.

The real question is not just what Google will do with people’s data – I don’t think for a second it intends to shake the public’s trust – but what advantage it will have in the business world after merging all those policies into one.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years