Google Updates Terms of Service, Asks Users to Buy-In Rather Than Opt-Out

Yesterday, Google made a big splash in an intriguing fashion.  In case you missed all of the "About 217,000,000" stories on the topic, or managed to avoid every site contained within the Google umbrella, here's a news flash: Google announced important updates to its Terms of Service yesterday.  The updates will become effective on November 11, 2013.  And when they do, Google "will be able to show what the company calls shared endorsements on Google sites and across the Web."  For Google users (a.k.a. "humans with internet access"), this means:

  • Google will be able to display their names, account photos, +1's, ratings, Google Play recommendations, and other similar information tied to their Google accounts in endorsements and paid advertisements on Google's sites
  • Google will also be able to display their information in endorsements and ads placed on many of the 2,000,000+ sites in Google's advertising display network
  • They will be able to opt-out from having their name and account photos included with"shared endorsements" appearing on paid advertisements
  • They will not be able to opt-out from having their name and account photos included with  "shared endorsements" that do not appear in ads, such as Google Play recommendations or reviews tied to their Google accounts

While these changes are in and of themselves noteworthy (there are now "About 225,000,000" stories on the topic), so is the manner in which Google broke the news.  Yesterday, Google released three documents: (i) the updated Terms of Service itself, (ii) a document detailing what a "shared endorsement" is and providing an mechanism for opting out from certain "shared endorsement" displays, and (iii) a document containing a very high level summary of the changes to the Terms of Service.

Although the summary is the least granular of the three documents, Google clearly hoped it would be the star. prominently displayed a link to the summary on Friday, but did not do the same for either the updated Terms of Service or the stand-alone "shared endorsement" document.  Similarly, the summary was more easily accessible on other Google-family sites than the other two documents.  So what's in the summary that made Google want people to see it first?

Well, in addition to the now industry standard recitation of benefits individuals can expect to (and often do) receive from personalized site and advertising content, the summary adds another reason for users not to opt-out: your family, friends, and even your favorite local businesses will benefit from having access to knowledge about the stuff you (someone they know) likes.  It also includes a hypothetical meant to remind users that others may lose out when users opt-out: "If you turn the ['shared endorsements' setting] off, your profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery..."

So, there it is.

Google has delivered a direct message to its users that they can help others if they share their personal information and may negatively impact others if they don't.  The sub-text is, in today's knowledge economy, our privacy decisions effect the community at large.  It will be interesting to see whether this argument gains traction with Google's users.  If it does, expect a flood of revised Terms of Service's -- with accompanying summaries -- shortly thereafter.