One privacy policy to rule them all: What Google's controversial new Terms of Service could mean to you

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“Don’t be evil.”

Those three words have long served as Google’s unofficial mission statement — a message to doubters that even a megacorporation with absolute market dominance can still be an exemplar of benevolent capitalism. But last week, when the search engine giant announced updates to its privacy policies and terms of service, the blogosphere erupted with fears that Google had finally gone Big Brother on us. Why? Right now, data collected from Google account members by each of its subsidiary products (Google Search, Gmail, Contacts, Calendar, YouTube, etc.) is compartmentalized: Even though you log in to each service with the same account, the data is collected separately. But under the terms of the new privacy policy that goes into effect March 1, all members’ personal data is aggregated across those products, creating one mega-profile across the entire Google brand, and not everyone is convinced that Google’s motivation is as pure and squeaky-clean as its stated goal of creating a “beautifully simple, intuitive” user experience.

“There’s a rather reflexive panic-mongering that happens around a) privacy, and b) the net, and c) Google,” says media commentator and What Would Google Do? author Jeff Jarvis of the backlash the company received last week to news of the change.

EW dug into the new privacy guidelines to determine what’s changing, what’s staying the same, and what you can do, if necessary, to protect yourself and your information. Here’s what we found out:

What to expect if you have a Google account

Google’s subsidiary products have always collected data from Google account members based on information they input, search queries they run, pages they visited, etc. On one hand, privacy advocates actually could take heart, because the new policy shows a movement by Google toward transparency and simplicity regarding its use of user data. It essentially condenses 70 separate policies — one for each subsidiary Google product, like YouTube or Gmail — into a single company-wide master policy. “There’s nothing new about Google sharing data within the company,” says Jarvis, who also founded Entertainment Weekly in 1990. “That has been its policy. Google has now simplified and clarified its policies by bringing them together and standardizing how they operate.”

The concern, however, is due to the fact that each Google product will now share that information with the other Google products, creating a detailed profile of each user based on the personal information gleaned from use of those products. So if you’re logged in and run a Google Search for Lady Gaga, the next time you visit YouTube you may find Lady Gaga music videos or TV appearances suggested for you, even though you haven’t previously searched for her on YouTube itself. Or, say you’re thinking about buying a new car and have been running a Google Product Search. Google will remember your search history, so the next time you type in “Jaguar,” the car company will pop up first, not a Wikipedia entry on a big cat. The only products to still have separate privacy policies? Google Wallet and Google Books, which will not share data with other company services. Nor will the Google Chrome browser.

NEXT PAGE: Can you opt out of all this info sharing?

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