Google comes under fire for its privacy policy change

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Earlier this year, Google made a change to its privacy policy that is now drawing criticism from privacy proponents.

As detailed by ProPublica, Google “quietly erased [the] last privacy line in the sand” by allowing for data it collects on its services to be combined with DoubleClick.

Previously, Google’s privacy policy read:

“We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.”

That was replaced with:

“Depending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.”

According to ProPublica’s Julia Angwin, “The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.”

By default, all users who create a Google account post-privacy policy change are opted in to data sharing and must opt out if they don’t want their data shared. Those who already have accounts must opt in.

A promise that was too difficult to keep?

As Angwin noted, when Google purchased DoubleClick in 2007, the company’s co-founder Sergey Brin stated that privacy would be the “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.” Ostensibly, that would mean the firewall between Google data and DoubleClick would never come down.

But the world has changed considerably since 2007.

Facebook, which was still a startup nearly a decade ago, today owns one of the most powerful advertising businesses on the internet, and is a bonafide threat to Google’s advertising dominance. Facebook’s ad business relies heavily on the vast trove of data the social network collects from its users, and that arguably is its biggest asset.

If Google kept its data separate from DoubleClick, it would increasingly find itself at a disadvantage against Facebook and others.

As Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum noted, “Google is actually quite late to this game. By now, most of the websites you visit are already sharing your activity with a wide network of third parties who share, collaborate, link and de-link personal information in order to target ads.”

Even though the data sharing Polonetsky is referring to has been taking place for some time and is now virtually ubiquitous, the fact that Google can no longer make privacy its “number one priority” is symbolic and demonstrates that the online ad business is now all about data, data, data.

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