Google revises privacy policy, responds to critics with the 'real story'

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Eliciting such overly-sensational headlines as "Google’s Broken Promise: The End of Don’t Be Evil", a preview of Google's new privacy policy has generated quite a stir across the web. Facing criticism from both the public and Congress (PDF), Google is now responding to those claims on its public policy blog.

The most raucous portion of the debate centers around changes which allow Google to share what it knows about you to other Google services. Google's blog summarizes the controversial bit nicely:

The main change is for users with Google Accounts. Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.

As a minority of professional journalists and bloggers point out though, the wording may have changed, but little else has. Although people are now up in arms, Google has always been able to combine and share your personal data among its own services. Here's an excerpt from an ancient, tattered, crinkly privacy policy dating all the way back to 2005:

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.

Google spins the new changes as a way to simplify privacy. Instead of 60+ different policies spanning their entire bevy of services, Google's privacy policy will now be a single document applicable to everything in the Googleverse.

The company has also made the policy easier to understand, avoiding the blobs legalese typically found in such documents.

Defending the changes in its blog, Google points out that nowhere does the new policy empower them to collect more information about you or change the way they use it. Here's what the company has to say:

  • You still have choice and control. You don’t need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube. If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to “off the record,” control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer.
  • We’re not collecting more data about you. Our new policy simply makes it clear that we use data to refine and improve your experience on Google — whichever products or services you use. This is something we have already been doing for a long time.
  • We’re making things simpler and we’re trying to be upfront about it. Period.
  • You can use as much or as little of Google as you want. For example, you can have a Google Account and choose to use Gmail, but not use Google+. Or you could keep your data separate with different accounts -- for example, one for YouTube and another for Gmail.

Unfortunately, privacy ultimately ends up being the real cost for free services and products. However, for anyone concerned about their privacy on Google, make sure to check out the Google Dashboard for a quick overview of what the company knows about you. The search company even provides a plethora of privacy tools which give users greater control over their online presence. 

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