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Big changes to Terms of Service due in March

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Mountain View's Chocolate Factory is putting its vast userbase on notice of major changes to its privacy policies.

Come 1 March the 350 million people worldwide who have Gmail accounts, for example, will no longer be able to use that service in isolation of other Google products they browse to online.

That's because the company's Terms of Service are changing.

Some will argue that Google is merely doing some neat housekeeping by cutting and shutting the majority of its 70 privacy policies into one clean explanation of what will happen with the information users input into the company's array of products.

Others might note that these privacy tweaks are coming ahead of any public antitrust battle Google potentially faces on both sides of the Atlantic where formal regulatory probes of the world's largest ad broker are already well underway.

"The main change is for users with Google Accounts," Google's privacy, product and engineering wonk Alma Whitten said.

"Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience."

The reality is that Larry Page's second shot at being in charge of Google has been defined by axing lumpen products and streamlining the search giant's business into a destination rather than an online station through which users travel to find stuff on the web.

In fact, that process had arguably been in play long before Page returned to the CEO seat. But since his comeback as Google's boss, that strategy – in tandem with regulatory pressure being heaped on the firm – has accelerated.

Some news outlets have pointed at an interview Page did with everyone's favourite smut rag Playboy back in 2004, when his outlook on what Google as a business represented to the online world was very different indeed.

Here's the full excerpt, via Business Insider:

PLAYBOY: With the addition of email, Froogle — your new shopping site — and Google news, plus your search engine, will Google become a portal similar to Yahoo, AOL or MSN? Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services.

PAGE: We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we’re happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that’s the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information.

PLAYBOY: Portals attempt to create what they call sticky content to keep a user as long as possible.

PAGE: That’s the problem. Most portals show their own content above content elsewhere on the web. We feel that’s a conflict of interest, analogous to taking money for search results. Their search engine doesn’t necessarily provide the best results; it provides the portal’s results. Google conscientiously tries to stay away from that. We want to get you out of Google and to the right place as fast as possible. It’s a very different model.

PLAYBOY: Until you launched news, Gmail, Froogle and similar services.

PAGE: These are just other technologies to help you use the web. They’re an alternative, hopefully a good one. But we continue to point users to the best websites and try to do whatever is in their best interest. With news, we’re not buying information and then pointing users to information we own. We collect many news sources, list them and point the user to other websites. Gmail is just a good mail program with lots of storage.

Cut to March 2012, and the state of play is very different indeed for Larry. Of course it's a CEO's prerogative to change his mind, and that's especially true if an upstart like Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook is suddenly the second-most popular online destination on the internet.

Google is expected to do a mass mail-out to all its users notifying them of the imminent changes to its Terms of Service. The company is also pointing anyone who visits its search homepage to a link detailing how its privacy policies will be tweaked.

In a nutshell, the company reckons that these changes to its services will offer its users "better search results".

That's an important statement. Google is reasserting that ALL of its products relate back to its search estate. In other words, Page's crew are insisting that the company only really offers one service online.

The question has to be: could this strategy of effectively turning Google into a destination, rather than simply a stop-off point – Mountain View prefers to call itself a "platform" these days – appease regulators, or is the anti-competitive damage already done? ®

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