Being true to its settlement agreement with the FTC in March of last year, Google pre-announced yesterday a comprehensive update that consolidates some 60 privacy policy documents, plus a refresh of its terms of service agreement. Both are to begin March 1, but are available now for review online.

This policy shift is generating buzz online over concerns of privacy, search anonymity and control over just what information gets shared.

For Google, the move comes as a result of a March 2011 settlement withthe FTC over "deceptive tactics and violations of its own privacypromises" related to the original Google Buzz site launched in 2010.

The New Privacy Program 

The promise, according to a rather simplistic cartoon made by the company, includes: "fewer words, simpler explanations and less legal "gloop" to read through." Google's new privacy policy and terms of service will apply to four major Google product areas -- Gmail, Search, YouTube and Calendar -- offering "One simplified policy that explains our privacy commitment to you." 

The Director of Privacy for Google, Alma Whitten, said in practice the main change will come for users with Google Accounts.

Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

Single User = Intuitive Experience 

The group also asserts that by combining information across products it can now offer more intuitive results. For example, search answers can now come not just from the web, but from personal data available in other Google services, such as your calendar. Whitten gives this example:

So if I search for restaurants in Munich, I might see Google+ posts or photos that people have shared with me, or that are in my albums. Today we can also do things like make it easy for you to read a memo from Google Docs right in your Gmail, or add someone from your Gmail contacts to a meeting in Google Calendar."

The short clip here helps explain what Google has in mind and is quite creative in bringing the news of the changes to the consumer. The company also ran a recent ad in the Wall Street Journal announcing new security features related to the change.   

Learning Opportunities

Mixed Reaction

Google puts a nice spin on this new unified approach, but as the Wall Street Journal article stated today, there are concerns over search and how this could effectively  "rewrite the relationship between users and the world's most popular search engine."

Specifically, the issue is over anonymous searches and the very personal nature a Google Search query can represent, such as financial, family or health matters. If a person is not logged into their Google account, searches are still anonymous -- but who logs out when doing a routine search, or will even think of the potential consequences of search query information sharing among the other products in the Google brand? 

Another concern highlighted in a Washington Post article states in part:

Not having the right to choose what information is shared between services is the source of a great deal of criticism. In remarks to The Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said that he thinks it is “imperative” that users have control over what information they want to have shared between the services Google offers."

With this new Main Privacy document, Google said they have condensed from a total of 70 policies to around ten, covering all the different products offered by the company. The terms of service are also easier to read and an effort was made to consolidate those documents as well, into a Main Google Terms of Service document. 

Just how the details of this new relationship between the world's most popular search engine and its users plays out is still an open issue, so stay tuned.