Wow, new privacy features!

December 11th, 2009 by Grace Meng

Wow, so many companies rolling out new privacy features lately!

Facebook rolled out its new “simplified” privacy settingsGoogle introduced Google Dashboard, a central location from which to manage your profile data, which supplements Google Ads Preferences.  And Yahoo released a beta version of the Ad Interest Manager.

Many, many people have reviewed Facebook’s new changes, and pointed out some of the “bait-and-switch” Facebook has done for some new, and I think better, controls.  I don’t have much more to say about that.

But it’s interesting to me that Google and Yahoo have chosen similar strategies around privacy issues, though with some differences in execution.  Both companies haven’t actually changed their data collection practices, and cynics have argued that they’re both just trying to stave off government regulation.  Still, I think that it makes a difference when companies actually make clear and visible what they are doing with user data.

“Is this everything?”

Both Google and Yahoo indicate in different ways that the user who is looking at Dashboard or Ad Interest Manager is not getting the full data story.

Google’s Dashboard is supposed to be a central place where a user can manage his or her own data.  In and of itself, it’s not that exciting.  As ReadWriteWeb put it, it doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t know before.  It provides links in one place to the privacy settings for various applications, but it focuses on profile information the user provides, which represents only a tiny bit of the personal information Google is tracking.

Google does, however, provide a link to the question, “Is this everything?” that describes some of their browser-based data collection and a link to the Ads Preferences Manager page.  To me, it feels a little shifty, that the Dashboard promises to be a place for you to control “data that is personally associated with you,” but it doesn’t reveal until you scroll to the bottom that this might not be everything.  Others may feel differently, but this to me goes right at the heart of the problem of how “personal information” is defined.  When I go to the Ads Preferences Manager, I see clearly that Google has associated all kinds of interests with me–how is this not “personally associated” with me?  Google states it’s not linking this data to my personal account data which is why they haven’t put it all in one place, which is good, but it seems too convenient a reason to silo that off.

Yahoo’s strategy is a little different.  It may not be fair to compare Yahoo’s Ad Interest Manager to Google’s Dashboard at this point, given that it’s in such a rudimentary phase.  It’s in beta and doesn’t work yet with all browsers.  (As David Courtney points out in PCWorld, being in beta is a pretty sorry excuse for the fact that it doesn’t work with IE8 and Firefox.)  Depending on how much you use Yahoo, you may not see anything about yourself.

Still, I thought it was interesting that Yahoo highlighted some of the hairy parts of its privacy policy in separate boxes high up on the page.  Starting from the top, Yahoo states clearly in separate boxes with bold headings that there are ways in which your data is collected and analyzed that are not addressed in this Ad Interest Manager.  The box for the Network Advertising Initiative is a little weak; it doesn’t really explain what it means that Yahoo is connected to the NAI.  But the box on “other inputs,” shows prominently that even as you manage your settings on this page, there may be other sources of data Yahoo is using to find out more about you.

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Yahoo also reveals that the information they’re tracking from you is collected from a wide range of sources, including both Yahoo account information like Mail and non-account websites like its Front Page.  Unlike Google, Yahoo doesn’t ask you to click around to find out that some of “everything” is elsewhere.

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Turning “interests” on and off

Google and Yahoo are very similar here.  Google’s Ad Preferences Manager indicates which interests have been associated with you with a clear link to how they can be removed, with a button for opting out from tracking altogether.

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Yahoo’s Ad Interest Manager has a different design, but the button for opting out altogether is similarly visible.

Yahooopt

We’re using cookies!

Compared to the other issues, this is the most obvious difference between Google and Yahoo.

Google has this on its Ads Preferences Manager:

Googlecookie

So you can see that some string of numbers and letters has somehow been attached to your computer, but you’re not told what this means in terms of what Google knows about you.

In contrast, Yahoo shows this at the bottom of the Ad Interest Manager:

YahooAd3

Yahoo knows I’m a woman!  Between 26 and 35!  The location is actually wrong, as I am in Brooklyn, NY, but I did live in San Francisco 5 years ago when I first signed up for a Yahoo account.  Still, Yahoo is very explicitly showing, and not just telling, that it knows geographical information, age, gender, and the make and operating system of your computer.  I’m impressed—they must know this is going to scare some people.

Does any of this even matter?

I prefer the Yahoo design in many ways — the boxes and verticality of the manager to me are easier to read and understand than the horizontal spareness of the Google design.  But in the end, the design differences between Google and Yahoo’s new privacy tools may not even matter.  I don’t know how many people will actually see either Manager.  You still have to be curious enough about privacy to click on “Privacy Policy,” which takes you to Yahoo! Privacy, at which point, in the top right-hand corner, you see a link to “Opt-out” of interest-based advertising.  The same is true with Google. And neither company has actually changed much about their data collection practices.  They’re just being more open about them.

But I am impressed and heartened that both companies have started to reveal more about what they’re tracking and in ways that are more visually understandable than a long, boring, legalistic privacy policy.  I hope Yahoo is feeling competitive with Google on privacy issues and vice-versa.  I’d love to see a race to the top.

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