With its New Privacy Policy, Is Google Going Evil?


This week, Google began the process of horizontally consolidating its privacy practices across the company’s disparate services. Whereas each of Google’s services — including YouTube, Google+, Gmail, and the search engine — used to have its own privacy policy and settings, the mandatory changes set forth a single standardized privacy policy that allows the company to share user information across Google services. For example, your YouTube viewing history could influence what ads you are shown in Gmail. The changes have sparked a firestorm of criticism, with many accusing Google of violating its own mandate, “Don’t Be Evil.”

However, it is unfair to crucify Google alone for collecting user data. Last spring, it was revealed that iPhones and Android devices send user location data back to their respective companies, Apple and Google.

While that revelation initially set off a furor among smartphone users who felt Apple and Google had been dishonest (both companies defended their actions by pointing out that the data was anonymous), it didn’t slow down sales of either iPhones or Android devices, both of which posted enormous gains in 2011. Google’s open acknowledgment of its privacy policy changes — which are now announced by notification banners on all affected sites regardless of whether or not users are logged in to their accounts — seems positively benign by comparison.

In an age where information about consumer habits, including web usage, forms a cornerstone of marketing strategies for everything from consumer products to automobile insurance, information aggregation has become understandably important to companies. Having information about potential consumers’ interests, demographics, and lifestyle allows companies to create targeted ad campaigns with custom-tailored messages on specific websites, in selected cities and particular venues.

Contrary to popular belief, this type of targeted advertising actually benefits consumers and retailers alike. For retailers, the benefit is clear: Knowing who to target and where to find those people allows them to spend less money on advertising campaigns, while ensuring they are just as, if not more, effective than costlier mass-marketing efforts. For consumers, targeted advertising can help them learn about opportunities that they would otherwise not have known about.

Unfortunately for Google, public opinion has yet to swing around to understanding the benefits of streamlined information across the company’s services. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Google’s privacy policy changes violate a settlement the company reached with the FTC in 2011. This is on top of Google’s ongoing antitrust probe, which the FTC is now expanding to include Google+.

Ultimately, Google’s privacy policy snafu will die down. Since the company has no intention of backing down from what it considers to be a beneficial change for all involved, those who use the company’s services — that is to say, basically everyone — will eventually have to come to terms with its new policies. In the same way the online community eventually accepts Facebook’s never-ceasing changes, it will inevitably get over its outrage and extol the benefits of Google’s changes within the month. Until then, however, Google will have to weather the storm of criticism from both private users and the political community.

Photo Credit: Magnet 4 Marketing