Google is changing its privacy policies around Google+, streamlining identity services and paring the terms of service. The move makes opting out hard, which will raise regulatory flags.
Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is folding 60 of its 70 existing product privacy policies under one blanket policy and breaking down the identity barriers between some of its services to accommodate its new Google+ social network software.
Google's streamlining comes as regulators in the United States and Europe have criticized Google, Facebook and other Web service providers for offering long-winded and legally gnarled privacy protocols.
To that end, the biggest privacy change concerns Google's accounts. When users are signed in, Google may combine identity information users provided from one service with information from other services. The goal is to treat each user as one individual across all Google products, such as Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube and other Web services.
Users may see how Google's widened identity approach works in Google's new Search, plus your world personal search results feature. This tool pulls content from Google+ and users' Picasa Web Albums. As Google+ increasingly integrates with more Google Web services, data from those services will surface in Search, plus your world.
Google claims this will lead to a simpler user experience, but it will also make it impossible for users to opt out of having their identities applied to dozens of Websites they might not have agreed to use. Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer wrote in a statement emailed to eWEEK:
"Google's new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening. Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to Opt Out—especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search."
This privacy practice changes will likely also provoke protests from the Electronic Information Privacy Center, which is currently opposing Search, plus your world, as well as the Consumer Watchdog agency.
The Federal Trade Commission, already looking into Google's search business practices and which had previously ordered Google to submit to 20 years of audits after breaching user privacy with its Google Buzz feature, will certainly take notice.
Yet Google sees the changes as improving the user experience. Google will use the streamlined identity credentials to improve disambiguation in its search results. For example, the company's search algorithms will better tune results for when users enter a search query such as "apple," which could mean the fruit or the company.
Alma Whitten, the director of privacy, product and engineering who is leading the policy changes, added:
"We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day. Or ensure that our spelling suggestions, even for your friends' names, are accurate because you've typed them before."
Increased personalization across Google Web services will also help improve Google's ad targeting. Google downplays this benefit, but it is a major reason why it is changing its privacy policies; it wants to refine its ad-serving features to boost relevance for each of its 1 billion search users.
Of course, users can still export all of the data they create within Google applications using the company's data liberation export tool. Google is notifying users about its privacy changes via email and its homepage.