Google seems to be going crazy.
By Cecilia Kang, Google said Tuesday it will follow the activities of users across e-mail, search, YouTube and other services, a shift in strategy that is expected to invite greater scrutiny of its privacy and competitive practices.
The information will enable Google to develop a fuller picture of how people use its growing empire of Web sites. Consumers will have no choice but to accept the changes.
.The policy will take effect March 1 and will also impact Android mobile phone users, who are required to log in to Google accounts when they activate their phones.
The changes comes as Google is facing stiff competition for the sometimes fleeting attention of Web surfers. It recently disappointed investors for the first time in several quarters, failing last week to meet earnings predictions. Apple, in contrast, reported record earnings Tuesday, blowing past even the most optimistic expectations.
Google’s move appears to be aimed squarely at Apple and Facebook — titans of the tech industry that have been successful in keeping people within their ecosystem of products. Google, which makes money by selling targeted ads, is hoping to do the same by offering a Web experience tailored to personal tastes.
“If you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services,” Alma Whitten, Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering wrote in a blog post.
“In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience,” she said.
For instance, a user who has watched YouTube videos of the Washington Wizards might suddenly see basketball ticket ads appear in his or her Gmail accounts.
That person may also be reminded of a business trip to Washington on Google Calendar and asked whether he or she wants to notify friends who live in the area, information Google would cull from online contacts or its social network Google+.
Google said it would notify its hundreds of millions of users of the change through an e-mail and on its main search site.
Privacy advocates say Google’s new policy may betray users who did not expect their information would be shared across different Web sites when they signed up for a single service, such as Gmail.
A user of Gmail, for instance, may send messages about a private meeting with a colleague and may not want the location of that meeting to be used in Google’s maps application or social network.
“There is no way anyone expected this,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of privacy advocacy group the Center for Digital Democracy. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”
Google recently settled a privacy complaint by the Federal Trade Commission after it allowed users of its now defunct social network Google Buzz to see contacts lists from its e-mail program. The company said it fulfilled its requirement to review any privacy changes with federal regulators.
Privacy advocates in recent weeks filed a separate complaint that Google deceived consumers by using information from its new social network Google+ in general search results.
Some worry about security. Gmail users, including some White House staff, last year were targeted by hackers who were able to breach the company’s e-mail accounts.
Claudia Farrell, a spokeswoman at the FTC, declined to comment on any interaction between Google and regulators on its new privacy changes and the agency’s view toward the integration of user information.
Google has also faced greater scrutiny that it is using its dominance in online search to favor its other applications. Google’s decision to blend Google+ data into search results has been included into a broad FTC antitrust investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is private.
Engineers from Twitter, Facebook and MySpace responded by launching a Web tool that they say shows Google is moving away from its stated mission to be a neutral Web directory.
On the Web site for the plug-in, the engineers wrote that searches for generic terms such as “movies” or “music” prioritize Google+ results over more relevant content.
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