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Google to merge user data across more services

Google said it talked to regulators about the upcoming privacy changes, which it will apply worldwide.

Google announced a plan Jan. 24 to link user data across its eMail, video, social-networking, and other services that it says will create a “beautifully simple and intuitive” user experience. But critics raised privacy concerns like those that helped kill the search giant’s Buzz social networking service.

The changes, which take effect March 1, will remove some of the legal hurdles Google Inc. faces in trying to link information across services from Gmail to YouTube to the Google Plus social network that replaced Buzz.

More than 70 different company policies are being streamlined into one main privacy policy and about a dozen others. Separate policies will continue to govern products such as Google’s Chrome web browser and its Wallet service for electronic payments.

The company said the new system will give users more relevant search results and information, while helping advertisers find customers—especially on mobile devices.

For example, if you spend an hour on Google searching the web for skateboards, the next time you log into YouTube, you might get recommendations for videos featuring Tony Hawk, along with ads for his merchandise and the nearest place to buy them.

“If you’re signed into Google, we can do things like suggest search queries—or tailor your search results—based on the interests you’ve expressed in Google [Plus], Gmail, and YouTube,” the company says on a new overview page for its privacy policies. “We’ll better understand [what] you’re searching for and get you those results faster.”

The changes follow the shutdown of Buzz last month. After its introduction less than two years ago, the social networking tool was ridiculed for exposing users’ most-eMailed contacts to other participants by default, inadvertently revealing some users’ ongoing contact with ex-spouses and competitors.

Google has since made Plus the focal point of its challenge to Facebook’s social network. In the first seven months since its debut, Plus has attracted more than 90 million users, according to Google, which has invited schools and colleges to create Google Plus pages.

To promote Plus, Google recently began including recommendations about people and companies with Plus accounts in its search results. That change has provoked an outcry from critics who say Google is abusing its dominance in internet search to drive more traffic to its own services.

Google and the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement last year that forbids Google from misrepresenting how it uses personal information and from sharing an individual’s data without prior approval. Google also agreed to biennial privacy audits for the next two decades.

Google said it talked to regulators about the upcoming privacy changes, which it will apply worldwide. An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment on the changes or say whether the agency was consulted.

Some critics saw Google as trying to beat regulators to the punch by setting a precedent before the FTC unveils its own framework for protecting online privacy.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the privacy group Center for Digital Democracy, said Google hopes “that by creating a one-stop shop for privacy policy, it will deflect regulatory action.”

Google, Facebook, and other popular internet services all want to learn as much as possible about their users so they can sell more advertising at higher rates to marketers looking to target people interested in specific products, such as golf clubs or skinny jeans.

Google says users who opt to see personalized ads are 37 percent more likely to respond to an ad than people who opt out of targeting.

Ryan Calo, director for privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said Google is trying to make its policy privacy transparent instead of bogging users down with pages of legalese; the new privacy policies run about 10,000 words, down from 68,000.

But he said the company must ensure that the ways it uses data help users without revealing sensitive information.

“If it creeps people out, then they need to be aware of that,” he said.

Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer issued a statement calling Google’s new privacy announcement “frustrating and a little frightening.”

“Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves [its] services, consumers should still have the option to opt out—especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail, and Google Search,” Steyer said. “Indeed, the industry standard should be ‘opt in,’ so that we can protect our privacy as we see fit. Unfortunately, if Google users really care about online privacy, it looks like their only option is to move to Europe.”

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