by Cecilia Kang
January 24, 2012
Google announced a new
Google will soon know far more about who you are
and what you do on the Web.
The Web giant announced Tuesday that it plans to follow the activities of
users across nearly all of its ubiquitous sites, including YouTube, Gmail
and its leading search engine.
Google has already been collecting some of this information. But for the
first time, it is combining data across its Web sites to stitch together a
fuller portrait of users.
Consumers won’t be able to opt out of the changes, which take effect March
1. And experts say the policy shift will invite greater
federal regulators of the company’s privacy and competitive practices.
The move will help Google better tailor its ads to people’s tastes. If
someone watches an NBA clip online and lives in Washington, the firm could
advertise Washington Wizards tickets in that person’s Gmail account.
Consumers could also benefit, the company said. When someone is searching
for the word “jaguar,” Google would have a better idea of whether the person
was interested in the animal or the car. Or the firm might suggest e-mailing
contacts in New York when it learns you are planning a trip there.
But consumer advocates say the new policy might upset people who never
expected their information would be shared across so many different Web
A user signing up for Gmail, for instance, might never have imagined that
the content of his or her messages could affect the experience on seemingly
unrelated Web sites such as YouTube.
“Google’s new privacy announcement is
frustrating and a little frightening,” said Common Sense Media chief
executive James Steyer.
“Even if the company believes that tracking
users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should
still have the option to opt out - especially the kids and teens who are
avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search.”
Google can collect information about users when
they activate an Android mobile phone, sign into their accounts online or
enter search terms.
It can also store cookies on people’s computers
to see which Web sites they visit or use its popular maps program to
estimate their location. However, users who have not logged on to Google or
one of its other sites, such as YouTube, are not affected by the new policy.
The change to its privacy policies come as Google is facing stiff
competition for the fickle attention of Web surfers.
disappointed investors for the first time in several quarters, failing last
week to meet earnings predictions. Apple, in contrast,
earnings Tuesday that blew past even the most optimistic expectations.
Some analysts said Google’s move is aimed squarely at Apple and Facebook -
which have been successful in building unified ecosystems of products that
capture people’s attention.
Google, in contrast, has adopted a more
scattered approach, but an executive said in an interview that the company
wants to create a much more seamless environment across its various
“If you’re signed in, we may combine
information you’ve provided from one service with information from other
services,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy for product and
in a blog post.
“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products,
which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” she said.
Google said it would notify its hundreds of
millions of users of the change through an e-mail and a message on its Web
sites. It will apply to all of its services except for Google Wallet, the
Chrome browser and Google Books.
Still, some consumer advocates and lawmakers remained skeptical.
“There is no way anyone expected this,” said
Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy,
a privacy advocacy group.
“There is no way a user can comprehend the
implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about
your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”
Added Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), co-chair
of the Congressional Privacy Caucus:
“It is imperative that users will be able to
decide whether they want their information shared across the spectrum of
Google has increasingly been a focus of
The company recently settled a privacy complaint by the Federal Trade
Commission after it allowed users of its now-defunct social-networking tool
Google Buzz to see contacts lists from its e-mail program.
And a previous decision to use its social network data in search results has
been included in a broad
FTC investigation, according to a person familiar
with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the
investigation is private.
Federal officials are also looking at whether Google is running afoul of
antitrust rules by using its dominance in online searches to favor its other
Claudia Farrell, a spokeswoman for
the FTC, declined to comment on any
interaction between Google and regulators on its new privacy changes.
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