Google to Put User Photos, Recommendations to Pals in Online Searches

Google is changing its terms of services to allow the search giant to share your online likes and other info with your friends when they use Google services.

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Google will soon use profile photos, online recommendations and other details about Google account holders in online ads that will be seen only by their friends who are also using Google services such as search, Google Maps and Google Play.

The broader use of user information was announced in a "Terms of Service update" by Google in an Oct. 11 post on its Policies and Principles Web page, which described several changes that will affect people who consume Google services. The new terms will go into effect Nov. 11, according to the company, and users will be able to opt out if they don't want their information used in these ways.

The biggest change is that Google will soon begin sharing users' Google account profile names, profile photos and online product or service recommendations with connected friends who also have Google accounts. The shared information could also be shared in online reviews, advertising and other commercial contexts seen by their friends, the company states.

The idea, at least according to Google, is that sharing such information will be useful to participants. "We want to give you—and your friends and connections—the most useful information," the post states. "Recommendations from people you know can really help. So your friends, family and others may see your profile name and photo, and content like the reviews you share or the ads you +1'd [on Google+]."

To protect users, such sharing will only be possible when a Google services user takes an action such as adding a comment to a post, following another user or adding a +1 on a post, according to the company. Perhaps most significantly, "the only people who see it are the people you've chosen to share that content with," the post states.

"On Google, you're in control of what you share," according to Google. "This update to our terms of service doesn't change in any way who you've shared things with in the past or your ability to control who you want to share things with in the future."

The changes will allow users to see things such as recommendations from friends about music selections in Google Play, or a +1 recommendation a user left for a favorite local bakery, according to Google. "We call these recommendations shared endorsements," which can be controlled by users through the Shared Endorsements setting in their Google accounts. "If you turn the setting to 'off,' your profile name and photo will not show up on that ad for your favorite bakery or any other ads. This setting only applies to use in ads, and doesn't change whether your profile name or photo may be used in other places such as Google Play."

Users who previously opted out to keep their +1's from showing up in online ads will continue to have their information withheld, according to Google.

A Google spokesperson had no further comment about the new terms of service changes when reached Oct. 11 by eWEEK, and a spokesperson for the privacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the group hasn't taken a position on the coming changes.

However, Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the non-profit, Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology, told eWEEK he's happy that Google at least offered users an easy way to opt out of the new service terms changes if they don't want to participate.

"I'm glad there is choice," Brookman said, which is not always the case with other companies such as Facebook. Brookman said he personally has opted out of Google's potential use of his image and comments. "You should have control over how companies use your image in advertising," he said.

Still to be seen is how Google service users will react to the changes, which some could see as invasive.

In late 2012, another online company, photo-sharing app Instagram, certainly learned how passionate users could be about having their own photos used by a company as a condition of service. In that case, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, released an update to its terms of service, which announced that the company might use subscribers' photos in advertising without getting consent or offering compensation.

Some believe that Instagram and Facebook were changing the rules without user input, and the backlash from users and non-users alike was swift all through the social networks, especially Facebook. Thousands of Facebook members threatened to opt out of the service, many using language not appropriate for general consumption.

Instead, Instagram back-pedaled and softened the language in its terms of service, eventually assuring users that the company would not own any images that were placed on the service by users.