Google overhauls user privacy policies

Google has paved the way for the introduction of a raft of more personalised services and advertising online, as it disclosed an overhaul of the privacy policies and terms of service that cover many of its different products.

Tuesday’s changes also marked a new front in the company’s battle for user attention with Facebook, reflecting the sea-change in its relationship with its users that has been under way as it has moved beyond its core search business.

Under its new policies, Google said it would be freer to deploy its users’ personal information across a wider range of services, bringing a more personal experience to everything from search to Gmail. The change could increase the amount of time users spend on Google’s services, strengthening its position against Facebook and signalling a further shift from its original approach of helping search engine users find other relevant internet sites as quickly as it could.

The changes would enable it to create more useful experiences, Google said, for instance by using information in a Gmail exchange to create automatic calendar entries about future events, or by using information about a users’ location to send automatic alerts about traffic conditions.

The overhaul seems set to trigger fresh scrutiny from privacy advocates, some of whom have already expressed concerns about recent Google moves to utilise user personal data gathered in one service to power others. This month, Google prompted questions when it began to use information from its Google+ social network in its search engine results, signalling its most ambitious attempt yet to gain an edge over rivals by linking two of its main services.

The company said that its privacy changes would still leave individual users in control of all their information and that personal data would not be disclosed to other users. However, its attempt to break down the information barriers between its various product “silos” has prompted some to question the impact.

“Although data from a user’s Google+ contacts is not displayed publicly, Google’s changes make the personal data of users more accessible,” Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wrote on his company’s website after the Google+ change this month.

Most of the information-sharing between services is already permitted under Google’s existing privacy policies, although the new wording would simplify the terms and make them more explicit, according to people close to the company. The change would also allow Google to apply information about a users’ behaviour on YouTube more widely for the first time, for instance using it to show adverts about certain brands of cars on its search engine to people who have watched videos about the vehicles on YouTube.

In all, the company said it had unified the separate privacy policies that apply to some 60 of its 70-odd different services, although several, such as Chrome, would continue to have separate policies. The changes are due to take effect on March 1.

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