Another thing Google does it publish comparisons between policy versions. This is part of the comparison between the October 2011 version and the March 2012 version:
Google does a terrific job purely from the perspective of transparency. Users are advised in advance what changes are going to be made and are shown not only the new policy document but also the changes from one version to the next. This behaviour doesn't receive enough attention. Not many companies go to such lengths to be so transparent about these sorts of changes.
The policy, for the most part, doesn't change the privacy framework under the previous model. Users haven't lost control over their personal information and haven't been forced to be more public than they may wish to be. This approach largely fell away a couple years after the Facebook privacy debacles. In the last year or so Google, Facebook and other services have been more careful with users' personal information and their privacy policies reflect this.
The new policy clarifies how users can "make meaningful choices about how" Google uses their personal information. Users have a couple of options available should they wish to access and review personal information Google holds; adjust their ad preferences; control who they share their personal information with and even if they choose to export their personal information from Google's services. The new policy also states that browsers can be set to block or moderate cookies but cautions about diminished functionality in its services if users choose to do so (this is the incentive for users not to moderate cookies).
A change I found very interesting is this sentence:
We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.
Google uses the DoubleClick advertising cookie on AdSense partner sites and certain Google services to help advertisers and publishers serve and manage ads across the web. You can view and manage your ads preferences associated with this cookie by accessing the Ads Preferences Manager. In addition, you may choose to opt out of the DoubleClick cookie at any time by using DoubleClick’s opt-out cookie.
Why People Are Concerned
We use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer you tailored content – like giving you more relevant search results and ads.
We may use the name you provide for your Google Profile across all of the services we offer that require a Google Account. In addition, we may replace past names associated with your Google Account so that you are represented consistently across all our services. If other users already have your email, or other information that identifies you, we may show them your publicly visible Google Profile information, such as your name and photo.
We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services – for example to make it easier to share things with people you know. We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.
Essentially Google is consolidating the personal information it has from its users across its various services into a more complete, useful and valuable database. Previous the various privacy frameworks and notionally distinct services meant that a user could have varying exposure to personalised ads and to personal information processing. Under the more consolidated model, users can be more readily and more accurately profiled and better targeted with ads. Their experience of Google's services can also be improved where data can be shared across services (another reason for the change) to enhance users' general Google experience.
This change reflects increasing integration of Google's services into a more cohesive set of services not dissimilar to Facebook which has always been regarded as a single, multi-faceted service but one which permits personal information published through one aspect of the service to be used with other aspects of the Facebook service as well as to better target ads.
Some of the clauses are mixed bags. This next clause makes an important point that sensitive personal information won't be associated with cookies and then glosses over the implications of those cookies and other technologies like pixel tags by explaining their value in setting the correct language preferences:
We use information collected from cookies and other technologies, like pixel tags, to improve your user experience and the overall quality of our services. For example, by saving your language preferences, we’ll be able to have our services appear in the language you prefer. When showing you tailored ads, we will not associate a cookie or anonymous identifier with sensitive categories, such as those based on race, religion, sexual orientation or health.
Google has been viewed with suspicion for some time now due to its size and presence in our daily lives. There is no question that Google uses personal information to personalise its ads and users' experience of many of its services. That said, Google works to be more transparent about its disclosure of personal information to governments (one of the times Google will hand over your personal information is in response to a valid and legally binding request from a government). Contrary to the article in a recent issue of the Star titled, "Big Brother has nothing on Google" (this article is largely a series of exaggerations, some of which are factually questionable), the new policy does not give Google carte blanche to sell user data at will. The policy is fairly clear on this point:
Information we share
We do not share personal information with companies, organizations and individuals outside of Google unless one of the following circumstances apply:
With your consent
We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.
With domain administrators
If your Google Account is managed for you by a domain administrator (for example, for Google Apps users) then your domain administrator and resellers who provide user support to your organization will have access to your Google Account information (including your email and other data). Your domain administrator may be able to:
- view statistics regarding your account, like statistics regarding applications you install.
- change your account password.
- suspend or terminate your account access.
- access or retain information stored as part of your account.
- receive your account information in order to satisfy applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
- restrict your ability to delete or edit information or privacy settings.
For external processing
For legal reasons
We will share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google if we have a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to:
- meet any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.
- enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations.
- detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues.
- protect against harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, our users or the public as required or permitted by law.
We may share aggregated, non-personally identifiable information publicly and with our partners – like publishers, advertisers or connected sites. For example, we may share information publicly to show trends about the general use of our services.
While Google has given itself the ability to exchange your personal information across its services for various reasons, it does not mention selling users' personal information to 3rd party advertisers. If anything, the policy wording tends to rule that out subject to Google's ability to disclose your personal information for those sorts of purposes if you consent to it or if the person administering the domain your Google account forms part of does something similar (Google leaves it up to those administrators to develop their own privacy framework).
In addition, this policy does not make further inroads into user privacy. The general exception is the extent to which aggregating personal information across Google's services impacts on user privacy more extensively.
Google has also given users the tools to control their personal information fairly effectively by removing it, blocking its collection or correcting it. I say "fairly" because the policy also mentions that users have control over "many" of Google's services, not all of them.
Ultimately personal information is the price users pay to use Google's (and other) services and while the choice to use other services often isn't as appealing, it remains an option. Users also have tools independent of Google to help protect their privacy. One such tool is alternative browsers like Firefox which includes various settings to help protect users' privacy. Even Google's Chrome gives users the ability to better control their personal information.
Nastassja de la Guerre helped out with a more detailed comparison between the October 2011 and March 2012 versions and an assessment of the impact of those changes. Nastassja is a candidate attorney at Jacobson Attorneys.