We’ve known for a while that Google was consolidating its privacy policies into one main one (with a few product exceptions), and today is the day that this goes into effect. What it all boils down to is that Google can share the data it has about you from Google service to Google service. It’s not sharing anything new with outside parties, just among its numerous services. The way Google presents it is that it will allow the company to make its products better and more personally relevant to the user.
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The whole thing has blown up in the media since Google first announced the changes. I haven’t heard too many people talking about it in casual conversation, but there’s no question that some are concerned, though I suspect the majority clicked to “dismiss” the little notification that Google has been showing users with little thought or concern. People have, however, been pretty vocal about it on Twitter.
“As you use our products one thing will be clear: it’s the same Google experience that you’re used to, with the same controls,” Google’s Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, Alma Whitten, wrote in a blog post. “And because we’re making these changes, over time we’ll be able to improve our products in ways that help our users get the most from the web.”
Whitten pointed out three “important points to bear in mind” regarding the policy:
3. Our privacy controls aren’t changing.
In a post in January about the changes, Google Director of Public Policy, Pablo Chavez, discussed five things that “aren’t changing”:
1. We’re still keeping your private information private — we’re not changing the visibility of any information you have stored with Google.
2. We’re still allowing you to do searches, watch videos on YouTube, get driving directions on Google Maps, and perform other tasks without signing into a Google Account.
3. We’re still offering you choice and control through privacy tools like Google Dashboard and Ads Preferences Manager that help you understand and manage your data.
4. We still won’t sell your personal information to advertisers.
5. We’re still offering data liberation if you’d prefer to close your Google Account and take your data elsewhere.
In a recent letter to Congress, Google explained that the old policies have restricted the company’s ability to combine info within an account for web history (search history for signed in users) and YouTube. “For example, if a user is signed in and searching Google for cooking recipes, our current privacy policies wouldn’t let us recommend cooking videos when she visits YouTube based on her searches – even though she was signed into the same Google Account when using both Google Search and YouTube,” Google said in the letter.
We’re already seeing other ways Google is trying to improve in this area. Earlier this week, the company listed 40 “search quality” changes it made in February. Among those, was a change to find more locally relevant predictions in YouTube.
Google’s SVP, Advertising, Susan Wojcicki, talked about the changes in a keynote at SMX West this week. As Shaylin Clark reported, she said that Google was doing its best to balance the interest of two very separate groups: advertisers and consumers.
The policy changes have drawn the ire of privacy watchdogs. EPIC, one such watchdog group has complained to the FTC, but the FTC decided they had no legal standing in the matter, but they did file an appeal. Still, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz called the new policy “brutal.”
A consultant to regular Google critic, the FairSearch Coalition (made up of Google competitors, mind you), sent a letter to the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG), expressing concerns with the changes.
Various other privacy issues of Google’s past an present only serve to fuel the fire of controversy around what to some isn’t all that big a deal. I think that, as Facebook has been dealing with for years, much of the outcry is more related to perception. Things like the recent storyline around Safari and the launch of Google Buzz a couple years back tend to stick in people’s heads.
Our own Abby Johnson recently interviewed Danny Sullivan, who has been moderating conversations with Googlers this week at SMX West, about the changes. Here’s what he had to say:
If you are in the party that’s outraged by Google’s decision, you can either start using other services or take all the precautions Google has enabled you with to control how Google shares your data. In an article today, a colleague, Josh Wolford, put together some steps you can follow for the latter option.
Another colleague, Drew Bowling, put together a little list of some alternatives to various Google services. There are certainly other options beyond these, but they are potential considerations. Bowling writes:
With Scroogle down for the count, the two viable not-Google contenders to take its place areDuckDuckGo and Gibiru. Both sites are pro-privacy and ensure users’ searches are encrypted by concealing your IP address from your search query. With either of these two search tools, your results will be the same as the basic results you get from Google.
Web-based Email – “The undiscovered country makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.” While Hamlet didn’t have something as trifling as Gmail in mind when he said this, consider the sentiment’s application when considering ditching your email. Your best free online alternative is likely Hotmail, but that service is owned by Windows. Fleeing Google for the cold embrace of Windows seems to belie any intent to emancipate and protect yourself from the corporate Eye of Sauron that you’re trying to avoid.The other thing is: Gmail’s really nice.
Another alternative you may consider is ZoHo mail, but with that you’re going to have less storage with a free account (you’ll have to pay in order to get more than 5GB). If you really want to spend some time weighing your alternatives, Wikipedia has a table comparing all of the more sought-after features for webmail services that might hasten your task.
Social Networking – I can’t recommend Diaspora enough as far as privacy goes, but the average Google+ user will have a hard time getting through the door as its still in Alpha and therefore new accounts are invite-only. The obvious and immediate alternative is Facebook but, similar to how I explained with the free email hosting above, you’d basically be trading one poison for another. Given you’re probably already on Facebook, and how nobody really seems to be adopting to Google+ that enthusiastically, this is one case where, if you must belong to a social network right now, stay with Facebook. Until Diaspora goes public.
Image sharing/hosting – Flickr. Flickr, Flickr, Flickr. There’s not really anything that can be said about Flickr that hasn’t been said before. It’s a great service, offers content protection for users, and just recently launched a savvy new look to users’ contacts. It incorporates the social aspect of photo-sharing and has a great user interface. Even if you’re not looking to ditch Google Picasa with all of this privacy hullabaloo, I still recommend giving Flickr a look. You may find that you outright prefer that service to Picasa and the less Google in your life at this point, the better.
Blogging – WordPress is likely to be your best alternative to Google’s Blogger. It offers up a comparable assortment of different themes for users to design their blogs, you can host your WordPress blog on your own server if you feel so inclined, and there are a host of add-ons you can apply to your blog. Tumblr might be a close second if you prefer a deeper social media aspect to your blogging, or if you lean towards brevity when it comes to composing your blog posts.
Browser – Firefox or Opera are going to be the two non-Google browsers that named as the preferred alternatives to Google’s Chrome. Depending on whether you’re a simple check-the-emails-and-maybe-Facebook user or a “power user,” the different resources offered by the two browsers should accomodate most people looking to unmoor themselves from Chrome. Firefox might be more familiar to casual users while Opera will likely make power users wild-eyed with excitement.
Reader – NetVibes is likely to be your best alternative but, unfortunately, you’re not going to have the complete array of features that Google Reader has. If you’re dependent on tagging articles you like or even being able to search your RSS feeds, that won’t be available to you with the free version. However, if those features aren’t all that necessary to your RSS experience then it might be worth your time to take a look at it.
Cloud storage – Dropbox is likely the service you’ve already heard of when it comes to cloud storage. Granted, Google’s GDrive was just announced recently so people have likely not begun migrating to Google’s cloud service yet, but Dropbox has worked great thus far . And you know what they say about things that ain’t broke.
If you’re a really dedicated anti-Google centurion, you could probably live an online life free of any of their apps if you don’t mind sacrificing some of the amenities offered from the Google World. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to be a tee totaler just to keep your information safe. Using Google apps isn’t completely bad – as mentioned above, some of their services really are probably the best you’re going to find for free – but lessening your dependency on the Google brand as a whole might serve you well.
Are the changes enough to make you consider using alternatives to Google? What is your biggest concern with the changes? Do you think all of the criticism is being blown out of proportion? Let us know in the comments.