As Google falters in public favor over privacy, Microsoft seeks to step in

Some would look at Google’s recent PR flub over privacy policies and settings as a bit of a fiasco.

Microsoft, of course, sees it as an opportunity.

This week, the company is placing a series of ads in newspapers across the U.S. to remind consumers that it still offers popular and secure web services for search, email, document management, and more.

In short, the company is making a bid for disgruntled Google users. For those among us who won’t like the idea of having a unified Google identity and privacy policy — a big part of the company’s Google+ strategy — Microsoft has Bing, Hotmail, Office 365 just waiting in the wings.

“When we read the coverage last week, it was clear people were honestly wrestling with the choices that had been made for them and were looking for options or alternatives,” wrote Microsoft communications VP Frank Shaw on the company’s official blog.

In some sense, we have to call BS on the whole dialog. It’s the clash of the PR titans. Neither company is really changing much of anything, including its actual practices when it comes to handling user data.

Unfortunately, average users have a hazy understanding of the changes Google is making; most of what they know is that change has the potential to disrupt their online lives, and they don’t want that.

Microsoft, which has been cloaked in (somewhat undeserved) big-bad-corporation vibes since the 1990s, is making “come to papa” gestures toward these users, even though nothing has changed in that company’s online products. There’s no new launch to announce, just a new angle to pitch — and the angle is “We’re not Google.”

Google, on the other hand, has to feed its users a similarly ambiguous line: “We’re changing, but nothing’s changing. Don’t worry; we’re all going to be fine.”

When it comes to your privacy, both companies are saying exactly the same thing, making highly subjective statements with no qualifying data.

Both claim to keep your data safe, to not share it around without your permission, to give you “choices” and operate with “transparency” when it comes to how data is used. But PR pitches aside, both companies are handling a complex issue — users storing massive amounts of data in online accounts — in roughly the same way.

So on which side is the grass truly greener? Whose privacy policies actually allow for more privacy?

The answer is… well, there is no answer. Both corporations are making company-friendly choices to improve their services and enhance their bottom lines, but not at the risk of scaring off the users they rely on to fund their operations. It’s a fine line, and both Microsoft and Google are toeing it carefully. Both will likely make some mistakes along the way; it’s inevitable.

As we don our trusty tin foil hats, we recommend that those truly obsessed with personal privacy shouldn’t be working “in the cloud” or putting most of their lives and work online. But if you have to live in an web-connected reality, as do we, decentralizing your activities will make for more privacy, because it will disperse small aspects of your information, habits, and behaviors among a range of companies rather than siloing your entire online life in just one mega-corporation. Between that and an app like 1Password, you should be just fine.

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