Google’s new privacy rules, and what they might mean for you

Posted on 08. Mar, 2012 by in Thoughts

Google launched their controversial new privacy rules yesterday (Thursday), and the reaction across the board has already been fiery, with everyone from the European Commissioner of Justice and U.S. State Attorney Generals to everyday internet and smartphone users weighing in with their opinions on the matter.

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty aspects of the new rules, I’ll give you a quick heads-up on the background of the story. Prior to the launch, anyone using any of Google’s individual services – think Gmail, YouTube, Blogger etc – had to register an individual profile on each site, assuming they wanted a profile on one. However, the updates made to Google’s privacy policy yesterday allow the company to create a single profile of each account holder’s activity across pretty much all of its services.

While doing so certainly has its obvious practical benefits, more cynical web users have been quick to point out that this now allows Google to keep their eyes on hundreds of millions of web users across the world and, in turn, target them with online advertising relevant to their needs and interests.

While the search giant have been quick to point out that if web users don’t like the updates, they don’t have to create accounts relating to any of the company’s services – fairly common sense really – owners of smartphones who make exclusive use of Google’s Android technology (the software is installed on models by HTC, Samsung and LG as well as a few others) are worried that they can’t avoid the changes unless they buy a different handset.

Indeed, there could be a fair point here. Let’s face it, the main selling points of smartphones are their internet capabilities and apps, and many main functions of these phones are tied back to logging into a Google Account of some sort. In particular, if you’re looking to take advantage of the Marketplace app store, you’re prompted to sign up as soon as you turn on your device. Not only has this led to some HTC owners trying to get a refund on their device, it’s raised concerns from the current European commissioner of justice, Viviane Reding.

In an interview given to the Guardian, Reding warned Google that “we aren’t playing games here” and made sure to point out that the obligation to protect personal data forms a key part of European treaties.
Similarly, it also emerged – prior to Google rolling out the controversial changes – that the CNIL (France’s data protection authority) had written to the search engine giant, letting them know that their preliminary analysis showed that their new policies didn’t meet the requirements of the existing European directive on data protection.

But what does this mean for everyday web users? When updates like this are rolled out, they usually don’t effect anyone using the internet purely for recreational purposes too heavily, however the popularity of Google’s existing services, and their levels of use amongst internet and smartphone users who don’t often engage in more technical matters (think those with a Gmail account, or people who like to occasionally add a video to YouTube) mean that this could affect web users across the board.

While the argument that you don’t have to register on the services if you don’t want to is always there, the level of coverage the issue has seen – it’s been widely reported on national news bulletins and the like – could lead to people doing exactly that, and there being a decrease in the usage of some of Google’s everyday functions, particularly from those with a smartphone.

Whether that’s necessary or not, obviously, is a personal choice. It’s important to point out that it hasn’t yet been confirmed as such that Google have broken any data protection laws, and that the levels of privacy invasion that users will face will only become clear with time. However, if you do have a smartphone and you’re a bit concerned, then the advice from a Google spokesman is the following:

“This updated privacy policy, like the old privacy policy, affects users signed into their Google Accounts on Android phones, the same way as users signed into their Google Accounts from a desktop computer.

“Users can choose not to log into an Android phone with a Google Account and still use it to place phone calls, send text messages, browse the web, and use certain Google applications that do not require account authentication such as Google Maps.”

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