Privacy Debate: Google Cannot Opt Out of New Brand Damage


It was a move many saw coming, eventually. Turns out, eventually was Tuesday. That’s the day Google amended its user privacy policy to begin sharing data collected from users across all of its services, including Gmail, Google+, YouTube and even Android.

The changes start March 1. There is no opt-out for users. There is also no opt-out of the PR nightmare Google’s brand is about to weather.[more]

The move, which Google positions as unifying its privacy policy across its products, follows its launch of a privacy information website (Good to Know) for consumers. There is even a twee, adorable little video, at top. It also boosts targeted advertising, particularly within YouTube.

In Google’s words:

“Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

Has Google (again) broken its promise to “Don’t Be Evil?” Is data sharing “evil?” The way The Washington Post described the new functionality, it sounds almost… helpful:

“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.”

Ironically, if that NBA video was watched on YouTube, there is a good possibility it was a copyright violation, one now maybe tied to your Google+ profile. Oddly enough, Google was just coming off a big PR “win” in its participation in anti-SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) activity that killed a potentially intrusive new law.

The move comes a week after Google integrated a user’s own social network in search results. A move that does, it should be said, have an off button.

The new data sharing will have no off button and critics have pointed out that because it includes Android and Google+, it means names and locations could be tethered to activity across all services. As Gizmodo noted, “It seems like it will particularly affect Android users, whose real-time location (if they are Latitude users), Google Wallet data and much more will be up for grabs. And if you have signed up for Google+, odds are the company even knows your real name.”

Regardless of how dangerous this sharing is to the average American, it’s a PR catastrophe for Google. Has the search giant really learned nothing from Facebook? Just a few months ago, the social network Google hopes to displace someday went through a brand-damaging federal investigation over privacy concerns. Facebook ended up settling with the FTC over privacy violations.

Of course, Facebook got in trouble for violating its own policies while Google is announcing that the decreased privacy of users is now the brand’s official policy. But will anyone notice the deference?

Then again, maybe Facebook and Google, the biggest digital brands, know that their users, when faced with making a tedious change to their digital loves, or grumpily doing what they’ve always done, will do the latter. Facebook just announced it will force all profiles to its “Timeline” format.

Seen as a privacy issue by users, rival web brands Twitter, Facebook and MySpace (remember Myspace?) see it as one of monopolies, fearing that Google’s move means the search king is abandoning its position of neutrality. The trifecta even launched an open-source plug-in to keep Google honest.

Ironically, and something Google maybe did not weigh enough, an explosion of bad press over its new privacy policy could push users to stay on Facebook instead of Google+, thus avoiding being tracked between a search and a social network. And lawmakers in Europe and beyond will be watching very closely.