Alma Whitten is director of privacy for products and engineering at Google Inc.

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Another View: Google privacy move is about helping users

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 2E
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 - 10:19 am

Alma Whitten, director of privacy for products and engineering at Google Inc., is responding to the Jan. 29 editorial "Google's latest digital 'innovation' could be a real threat to privacy." The editorial stated the changes "ought to give great pause to consumers – and should be a wake-up call for Washington to get more serious about protecting our privacy online."

If you use Gmail, YouTube or any other Google services, it's been impossible to miss – we're updating our privacy policies on March 1. These kinds of changes can lead to lots of confusion, so let me keep it simple: We're doing this to make our privacy commitments more understandable and to make Google work better for you.

First, simplicity. Google started in 1998 as a search engine. Since then we've added a whole range of services that people love: Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome, Google Docs, Android and Google+ to name a few.

Historically when we launched a new service, we added a new privacy policy. Same when we acquired a service – we left the existing policy in place. To read them all would have taken you hours.

In September 2010, we took a first step toward simplifying them by folding a dozen service-specific notices into our main Privacy Policy. But that still left more than 70. So on Jan. 24 we announced that we've rewritten – in plain English – our main Google Privacy Policy and folded in more than 60 service-specific ones. On March 1, you'll have one comprehensive document outlining our privacy commitments across the vast majority of Google services.

Second, we want to create a better user experience. For the most part, our privacy policies already allowed us to combine information gathered in connection with one service with information from other services when users are signed into their Google accounts. Microsoft, Yahoo and other online companies do the same. It lets us treat you as a single user across Google when you're signed in.

Today, for example, you can immediately add an appointment to your Google Calendar when a message in Gmail looks like it's about a meeting. You can use the Google+ sharing feature – "circles" – to send friends directions without leaving Google Maps. Or you can use your Gmail address book to auto-complete an email address when you're inviting someone to collaborate on a Google Docs spreadsheet. It's all seamless, and it saves you time.

However, our privacy policies have restricted our ability to combine information within an account for two services: Web History (search history for signed-in users) and YouTube, which we acquired in 2007. So, if you're signed in and searching Google for cooking recipes, our current privacy policies wouldn't let us recommend cooking videos when you visited YouTube based on your searches – even though you were signed into the same Google Account for both.

So our updated main Privacy Policy makes it clear in one comprehensive document that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from our other services. We think this will lead to more relevant information of all kinds – search results, ads and more that suit your interests.

Our approach to privacy isn't changing. We're not collecting any new information as a result of this change. We're not altering any of your privacy settings. And we still won't sell your personal information to advertisers. We just want to use the information you already trust us with to make your experience better.

Just like any company, legal documents like our privacy policy and terms of service apply to all our users – so if you keep using Google after March 1 it will be under the new privacy policy. But you still have choices about how your data are collected and used.

If you don't think information sharing will improve your experience, you don't need to sign in to use services like Search, Maps and YouTube. If you are signed in, you can use our many privacy tools to do things like edit or turn off your search history, control the way Google tailors ads to your interests and browse the Web "incognito" using Chrome.

Providing transparency, control and security remains crucial to keeping our users happy. We build Google for you, and we think these changes will make our services even better.

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