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Google overhauls its privacy policies

This news story was published on January 25, 2012.
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By Mike Swift, San Jose Mercury News –

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As Google increasingly seeks to meld what were once separate services into a single overall experience, the Internet giant is also consolidating its network of privacy policies into a single umbrella statement.

Google said Tuesday it would consolidate a tangle of more than 60 privacy policies into a single, easier-to-understand statement that would inform the company’s hundreds of millions of users about how Google collects and uses information about them. The company plans to put its new privacy policy into effect March 1.

“Our new policy reflects our desire to create a simple product experience that does what you need, when you want it to,” Google said in an announcement posted on its website Tuesday afternoon.

At about 2,200 words, the new privacy policy is slightly longer than Google’s existing main privacy policy, but the company says a consumer who uses many of the most popular Google services would have to read more than 80,000 words now to digest all the specific policies that now cover those key services.

The move reflects the fact that important Google services such as Web search, Gmail, and the Google+ social network are increasingly joined at the hip. A Google customer who uses both Gmail and Google+, for example, now sees information about their Google+ connections in their Gmail contacts. And Google recently launched a controversial new search feature that promotes content from Google+ and its Picasa photo-sharing service in search results.

Privacy groups have long called for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to rewrite their privacy policies in plain English and shorten them as much as possible to help consumers make choices. But privacy advocates may not rush to embrace the new Google privacy effort, if their response to Google’s recent privacy education campaign is any indication.

Google also recently launched a new education campaign about privacy dubbed “Good to Know” in newspapers and magazines across the country, and links to the “Good to Know” website are featured on the company’s new privacy page. But the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center plans on Wednesday to launch an alternative campaign called “Good to Really Know,” which will talk about how software “cookies” are used to target advertising to consumers, as well as other privacy issues that Google mentioned but did not prominently feature in its advertising campaign.

“What they say on their ‘Good to Know’ website is really not helpful to users, and we think users should know that,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC said Tuesday. “It puts the responsibility for privacy back on the users, when it’s Google and others that should be doing more to safeguard online privacy.”

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which recently finalized a consent decree that requires Google to submit to 20 years of independent privacy audits, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the company’s new privacy policy.

There will still be a handful of Google services that have their own separate privacy policies, such as for its Chrome browser and Wallet payments services, because those services require different disclosures under the law.

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