Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Google Breaks the Internet

Last month, Google announced plans to consolidate more than 60 of its 70+ separate privacy policies into a single, unified document. The streamlined privacy policy, which Google described as “beautifully simple […] a lot shorter and easier to read,” will take effect on Thursday, March 1. Almost immediately, careful readers raised concerns about sharing formerly-private Google search data across multiple applications. Gadget blog Gizmodo declared the move a reversal of Google’s official corporate motto (“Don’t be evil”), warning that “things you could do in relative anonymity today, will be explicitly associated with your name, your face, your phone number come March 1st.”

Members of Congress also expressed concern about the changes, which Google addressed in an open letter. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued to compel the Federal Trade Commission to enforce a prior consent order which required Google to protect user data. (The case was dismissed several weeks later, and has since been appealed to the D.C. Circuit.) Three dozen state attorneys general also sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page to outline their concerns about the new policy.

In spite of all the hubbub, Google visitors are still seeing a notice on various applications, warning of the pending March 1 change. So what’s a concerned searcher to do? Larry Magid at Forbes offers five tips to ensure your continued privacy under Google’s new policies. They include browsing without sign-in; utilizing “private browsing” options; and deleting your Google web history. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created step-by-step instructions with screenshots for the latter option, which have practically gone viral over the last week (ironically enough, on the bastion of consumer privacy known as Facebook).

Whether you’re horrified at the thought of sharing your running list of personal search activity at Google Web History, or welcome the thought of more-relevant search results and advertising next week, this consumer kerfuffle is a good reminder why you shouldn’t just blindly click through the Terms of Service when signing up for a new account online. In the market for a new favorite search engine? Be sure to Ask a Librarian.