Sandwiched between the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, Microsoft's service agreement changes barely caused a ripple.
In an email to users, Microsoft described its changes as a redrafting designed to make its policies easier to understand for customers, but it has also made a change that could be hard for some to swallow.
In its revised policy, Microsoft can now share your content between its services. Previously, data from one service like Hotmail was essentially walled off from Bing and vice versa. If this change sounds familiar, you're right. Last spring, Google changed its policy in the same way and said it was consolidating most of its policies under a universal agreement that allowed it to share user data from one product to another.
At the time of Google's announcement, Microsoft ran full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today that criticized Google's new unified policy. "Those changes, cloaked in language like 'transparency,' 'simplicity' and 'consistency,' are really about one thing: making it easier for Google to connect the dots between everything you search, send, say or stream while using one of their services."
But Microsoft's change does exactly that. The company's new policy goes into effect on Sept. 26.
Why the change? "Microsoft probably thinks that it needs to be on an equal footing with its competitors in being able to use customer data across its entire spectrum of cloud services," Andrew Nicol, founder of Clickwrapped , a website that rates how well companies respect their users' rights, said in a blog post. What Nicol is referring to is big data — the massive amounts of data collected from millions of users on hundreds of sites each day.
The management of big data is essential to deliver the information that you expect from the sites you use as well as to protect you from fraud and other online dangers. For instance, each day, Twitter must analyze 12 terabytes of tweets to deliver its trends, according to figures released by IBM. Big data is also used for advertising, which is the way most of the big sites make their money. You allow companies to use your data in exchange for their services.
But aggregating data across services could lead to problems. Your data could ultimately be used for something that has no relationship at all to the purpose for which you provided it, Nicol said. "Would you feel comfortable if Microsoft started scanning your Office documents and displaying related ads in your Bing searches?" he said.
One possible strategy to avoid tracking is to mix it up a bit. For instance, if you use Hotmail as your email provider, use Google instead of using Bing for search. We're pretty sure there's no data sharing between Internet giants.