Google strikes controversy over policy consolidation

Andrew Messamore

Google Inc. is facing controversy and criticism after the company announced plans to consolidate privacy policies for its 60 products, services and websites into one set of rules next month. The new policy would enable Google to treat users as a single entity across all of the company’s products, meaning that a user signed into their Gmail account would be storing data on themselves every time they use Google’s web search, YouTube or any other Google service. This data would then return back to the user in the form of personalized ads designed for the individual while they browse Google’s services.

Critics of the change on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to raise alarm about the change, including a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators and representatives who sent an open letter to Google last week to clarify the exact workings of the policy. Google was also persuaded to delay the implementation of the new rules until March 1 after European Union data protection authorities asked the company to wait while they evaluated whether the new policy infringes on the rights of EU member states.

“Internet privacy advocates are concerned about how much information one company is going to know about you,” said David Jacobs, consumer protection fellow for the Washington D.C. based Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Once you start combining a lot of non-sensitive information about users in random searches, you start to develop a really accurate picture of a user, making that user a very tempting target for advertisers who are able to access that information.”

Jacobs said the major problem with the current policy is that the few ways users could opt out of data collection and solutions, like using the services without an account, are insubstantial when products like Gmail require the user to log in.

No transaction on the Internet can be completely private and privacy advocates must acknowledge that the Internet involves a two-way exchange, said advertising professor Neal Burns.

“The privacy issue becomes distressing to those who think their information should not be traded,” Burns said. “If you’re willing to pay for it, you‘re able to maintain a certain amount of privacy on the Internet. But by using a search engine like Google, we acknowledge that we are selling our privacy in exchange for free services.”

The exchange is also altering the relationship between advertiser and consumer, Burns said, which cuts out the middleman in newspapers and television advertising.

Services like Google will be largely the sole collectors of vast amounts information and even certain advertisers are wary of the company’s power, said Tess Levitan, president of the Texas Advertising Group.

“The combined information has certainly increased offerings to advertisers, but there’s also a concern that no one else can compete on that same level,” Levitan said. “Eventually advertisers will have to pay more to work within Google.”

Levitan said Google’s influence is easily seen in advertising classrooms at UT, where online mediums are becoming increasingly important and professors rely on predominately Google-created products for instruction.

Colin Gilligin, account planning director for Austin marketing firm Tocquigny, said the policy change is only a ‘coming out’ for Google. He said these policies have already been in place and the media has overexaggerated the policy shift.

“This is the poster child that gets a lot of darts thrown at it for privacy infringement, and concerns over censorship and privacy have been fresh since SOPA and PIPA came up,” Gilligin said. “Because Internet users are now more informed, users feel powerful enough to demand how their information is shared, and this could lead to competition with Google sometime in the future when a competitor offers more controlled service. It’s not likely any time soon, but now that this sort of discussion is happening it could shift the field quite a bit.”

Printed on, February 7, 2012 as:Users dismayed over consolidation