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Will Google’s New Privacy Policy Make You Think Twice About Using Google?

If you’ve opened a newspaper recently or read any tech blog, you’ve likely noticed headlines about changes to Google’s privacy policy. If you use any of Google’s products or services, you’ve doubtless been exposed to their notifications about the change as well. Here’s what’s happened: Google has overhauled its privacy policy and will apply it to all of its products and services (with a few exceptions) starting March 1st. The most notable and controversial implication of this change for Google’s users is that information Google collects about its users’ behavior will now be shared amongst all of Google’s services.

Google has stated many times that it concerns itself with improving users’ experience on the web. To that end, Google collects, analyses and acts on information about the people who use its products. Here’s how they explain it in the new privacy policy:

We collect information to provide better services to all of our users – from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful or the people who matter most to you online.

Google collects that information in a number of ways, including by storing cookies on its users’ computers and by saving data associated with users on its own servers. If you sign up for a Google service, you also often provide them with your name, location and your telephone number. Over the last few years, Google has narrowed the gaps between its services, and today if you sign up for a Google account, it can automatically be associated with accounts all across Google’s product line once you’ve signed up for them. Ideally, this strategy will make a user’s experience of Google’s services more streamlined and intuitive.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why does a change to Google’s privacy policy merit articles in national newspapers and tirades on message boards? Shortly before the release of its new privacy policy, the company was slammed in the blogosphere for including content from its users’ Google+ account activity in search results. It’s important to note that this Google+ activity appeared only in the search results of registered Google+ users who had subscribed to the producers of the content. But still, users alleged misuse of their personal information and that Google showed unfair bias in favor of its own social media platform over others in its search results.

There is no single source anywhere that aggregates the whole world’s opinion into a single spreadsheet, so no one can say definitively what percentage of people objects to Google’s new policy. But it’s easier to find examples on message boards and news sites of people who are, to put it mildly, suspicious of Google’s new policy than it is to find people who are enthusiastic about it. Here’s a small sample of the comments from a New York Times article about the policy change:

“This is the final straw in my increasing discontentment with Google.”

“I don’t trust Google.”

“Sounds like a great marketing opportunity for Yahoo to get back in the game with a different privacy policy.”

“I’m glad I use and have been using BING.COM.”

Some users are indicating that they will switch to other search engines out of frustration with Google’s seeming disregard for their privacy. Bing, for example, has the second highest share of the search market, and despite the fact that Bing’s privacy policy includes some of the same provisions that make Google users nervous (storage and use of personal information by Bing and its “affiliates”), this could be an opportunity for Bing to brand itself as a haven for users with more libertarian sensibilities.

Bing is capable of delivering search results in a way that is very similar to Google, which makes it a viable alternative to Google search. As for Google’s Gmail, Docs, Youtube and other kinds of services, Bing offers comparable alternatives, which makes the two companies pretty similar in terms of what their services do for users and how those services are offered. The difference, at this point at least, is branding, and Bing has an opportunity to seize at Google’s expense. Perhaps if Bing decided to change its policy to minimize the extent to which it gathers and disseminates personal information, that could be the distinguishing factor between the two companies.

Bing is at a crossroads as Google runs damage control for its new policy. If Bing takes the right path, it could turn this event into a New Coke moment for Google from which it might not recover. If it does nothing, a lot of nothing is probably what will happen.