Illustration: Jacob Turcotte/Staff
The realm of the Internet is undergoing a significant change Thursday as the Web's biggest hub of activity, Google, introduces a new policy on user privacy.
The change, though, is one you may not notice immediately. Its result is that millions of Internet users will start seeing more ads that are targeted specifically to them, through Google, on the basis of their activity on the company's various websites.
Depending on your opinion, that can be a good thing, no big deal, or a terrible invasion of privacy.
The company itself allows that users will have these different views, and it has set up some ways for them to act accordingly.
"While we’ve undertaken the most extensive user education campaign in our history to explain the coming changes, we know there has been a fair amount of chatter and confusion," Google said in its official blog on March 1, as the changes took effect.
Some users will find the new policy helpful and intuitive. You search on Google for recipes that use tofu, and when you next visit YouTube (another Google site) you notice some videos on how to cook a stir-fry dish.
Google, of course, accentuates the positive: "Over time we’ll be able to improve our products in ways that help our users get the most from the web," the Thursday blog post said.
At the same time, for people concerned about erosion of online privacy going too far, the company and outside watchdogs offer a range of choices that can help people travel the Web, and Google's own sites, a little more anonymously.
Here are a few options to note:
Divide and conquer. Instead of relying on Google for e-mail (Gmail), Web searches, and various other services, you can migrate one or two major activities to another provider. Some alternatives for e-mail include Hotmail or Yahoo. Other search-engine options include Bing, ask.com, Yahoo search, and DuckDuckGo.
This way, you're not giving Google as much data to track.
If you'd like to do something along these lines, but worry about losing data now stored with Google, note that Google offers a "data liberation front" (visible with its other privacy tools, linked below). This is the company's pledge to make it easy to export your data if you ever choose to shut down a Google account.
You can also try a similar "divide and conquer" approach by setting up more than one Google account, and signing into one for, say, YouTube, and another for e-mail.
Use Google's privacy tools. The company offers a range of privacy tools designed to allow users some choice of the experience they get. Consider your preferred settings, for example in the "Ad Preferences Manager," "Search Personalization Opt-out," "Web History Controls," and the "Incognito" mode in Google's Chrome Web browser.
Another tool, "Google Dashboard," gives users some hint of what information Googel is tracking.
Sign out before you search. If you sign out of your Google account while doing Google searches, the company is not linking your search activity to your personal account.
Although Google's move has stirred controversy because of the firm's size and its vast user base, the company is traveling a path similar to what other firms are doing, including rival Web giants like Facebook.
And many Web users know that when they visit "free" websites, the company delivering the service or content wants to earn some revenue, usually through advertising. The better-targeted the ads, the greater the revenue from them.
In Google's case, what it has described as a move toward "one beautifully simple, intuitive user experience" is also a bid for bigger earnings.