The internet has been freaking out these past few weeks over the changes to Google’s privacy policies, which come into effect March 1. The change allows Google to co-ordinate the data it collects from you across almost all of its services in order to give you targeted results and ads. You’ll be treated as the same person when using your Google account to search, send email, watch YouTube videos, or any one of the dozens of activities you can do with Google products. Some privacy advocates are calling foul, saying that this change takes power away from the consumer by not allowing them to opt out of the program. Should you be worried about what Google is planning to do with your data?
Maybe – but not quite for the reason you think.
Let’s get this clear: The new policy is merely a combination of their previous privacy policies. Google already uses your history to deliver targeted content: – if you watch a lot of Katy Perry videos on YouTube, you’ll get more of her in the suggested videos. The change just means Google can now use their other products in a similar way – now you might see Katy in the suggested videos if you searched for her, or posted about her on Google+. The web giant is not changing the way they store or use this data. They will not be selling it to third parties, and in most cases a human will never look at it. Google asserts that they are doing this to help you organize your use of their products. For example, if you search for “jaguar”, their algorithm can look at your preferences to guess whether you are looking for a car or a jungle cat, and push the correct option to the top of the results.
If this is a concern for you, you can manage your privacy settings in the way you always have on Google Dashboard. You can disable web history so Google will not use your past info in current searches. While it’s true that synchronizing your products makes it harder to customize privacy settings for individual products, there are ways around it. If you really don’t want your data to be shared across products, you can create multiple accounts and Google won’t attempt to merge them. This can be a little inconvenient, but it’s getting less so with the introduction of multiple sign-in options. Once again, none of these options are affected by the change and you can do them right now.
Now for the part that is worrisome. It’s called Search Plus Your World. This feature adds content from your social media networks into Google search results. If you have a Google+ account and use Google search while signed in, you can see results from your friends’ posts, photos, and profiles at the top of the list. Some have claimed that this is a breach of privacy because, while you can turn off personalized results, you cannot prevent your own posts from showing up in your friends’ personalized searches. Others argue that if you post something to a social network, you intend for people to see it. I’m inclined to agree with this position. Your posts will not be visible in a public search, only to people you have already friended on Google+. The company is taking pains to encrypt personalized search data to make sure this is so.
But my concern isn’t privacy. It’s trust. Google as a company has built itself on the promise of being able to get you anywhere in the web within seconds. Its business model has been so successful that it has become the de facto default search engine, and for millions of people it’s their starting point every time they need information online. But it has this position because Google users trust the service to be a neutral connection to the web. When you Google search, you probably assume that the results will be the most popular, the ones that most closely match what you are looking for. By pushing Google+ pages to the top, Google has made it clear that they are not, in fact, interested in showing you the best results for your search, but the results that benefit their bottom line the most. I find it quite ironic that the company that originally aimed to connect all websites to all people is now moving toward a business model that tries to keep users in their own little social bubble. I can tell you I will be turning off personalized searching and logging out of my accounts to search if I want to get to the most relevant pages I need.
Heck, maybe I’ll even give Bing a try. It can’t be as bad as everyone says, can it?