Evil or Useful? A Practical Guide to Google's New Privacy Policy

It's easy to get upset about Google's newly announced changes to its privacy policy, because as many have now pointed out, despite Google's mission to not be "evil," the changes have some pretty evil implications.

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It's easy to get upset about Google's newly announced changes to its privacy policy, because as many have now pointed out, despite Google's mission to not be "evil," the changes have some pretty evil implications. Though it's been less than 24 hours since Google's announcement, there are whispers of a new investigation into Google's privacy practices, a familiar story

But are the changes really that evil or are they actually useful? We've done our best to break down what Google's doing, what people think they're doing, and how it might actually impact your life based on a simple dichotomy: evil vs. useful.

This is Evil

You can't opt-out. As we noted when the news broke on Tuesday, Google will be tracking you across all of its platforms and linking the data in order to make these platforms more useful. The fact that Google is collecting data about you, however, is not a new thing. "Google noted that it already has all that data, but it’s now integrating that information across products. "It’s a change in how Google will use the data not what it collects. In other words, Google already knows more about you than your wife," ZDNet's Larry Dignan noted in his exhaustive post "Google's new privacy policy: The good, bad, scary." You can adjust your settings on your Google Dashboard, but if you're not on board with the new use of your data, the only option you have to make Google stop collecting it is to stop using Google products.

It's mysterious. This is a PR problem more than anything. Because privacy is such a hot button issue -- and because various regulators around the world have required Google to address privacy issues -- Google is working hard to promote transparency in how its using your data. In addition to an expansive, explanatory privacy portal, Google has launched a new ad campaign. Nevertheless, until this new policy goes into effect on March 1, you won't really know how much your Google experience will change. In and of itself, this is a little troubling, says Wired's Tim Carmody. "I don’t think Google is evil, at least in the sense that Google (and we) thought of 'evil' in the tech industry a decade ago," Carmody wrote about the changes. "I think it’s become something else, something more than a little uncanny, something that despite conjecture, projections, fictions, and a combination of excitement and foreboding, we haven’t fully prepared ourselves to recognize yet."

It's mobile. In the wake of the Carrier IQ scandal, we anticipate some flags to be raised over Google's new, streamlined privacy policy including everything that happens on Android phones -- and perhaps iPhones, BlackBerrys and Windows phones. "Because you have to sign in to your Google account to do anything except for browse the Web and make phone calls, Google will be able to track practically anything you do on your phone," explains Hayley Tsukayama at The Washington Post. "Google’s new privacy policy doesn’t get into the specifics of what it can collect on different platforms and whether this changes if you download a Google app or if you access Gmail, for instance, on your phone's browser or competitor's app. But it does say that if you sign into Google services, Google will be able to collect information about your device and usage." Once again, it's a wait-and-see game to learn what this means practically.

This is Useful

A more streamlined privacy policy is the positive PR-friendly spin that some pundits have put on the changes. In no uncertain terms, this is true. Google used to have 70 privacy policies and now they have one. If anything, this should make it easier for users to understand exactly what data Google is collecting and what they're not. And as much as bloggers like to crow about Google's many privacy complaints over the years, the company's official blog frames the changes as their way of responding to these run-ins with regulatory bodies. "Regulators globally have been calling for shorter, simpler privacy policies -- and having one policy covering many different products is now fairly standard across the web," says Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy for products and engineering.

It's futuristic! Believe it or not, the privacy policy will actually allow Google to work better. If you're comfortable with your data being collected as it always has been and used in new ways, the possibilities are sort of endless. Google offers this example: "We can provide reminders that you’re going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day." That's kinda cool! (It's also a little bit creepy, but some people -- like this blogger -- are okay with creepy.) Furthermore, this is what the tech pundits have been asking for. "Many of the same techies who cry foul over these new policies have also been pushing for the development of the semantic web to make it easier to find what we actually need in the trillions of web pages floating around the Internet," argues ZDNet's Christopher Dawson, who has mixed feelings about the new privacy policy.  "Guess what, folks? This is the semantic web."

It does provide one easy way to opt-out. As we said and as Google is clear to communicate, if you don't like the new privacy policy, you can close your account. Facebook, for one, would be thrilled to have your business.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.