Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Google is planning to take some heavy lifting out of maintaining your privacy by getting rid of one of the biggest obstacles: actually going to your settings to change your preferences. On Wednesday, the company announced that it will start automatically deleting Google Account activities by default, rather than requiring people do it on their own.
The data that Google collects on its users now comes with an expiration date. Location History and Web & App Activity will auto-delete after 18 months by default. YouTube history will delete automatically after three years by default.
If you want it to collect less data, you can set it to delete your data history after three months -- but that's not turned on by default. Outside of Location History and YouTube History, there's also still no way to tell Google that you don't want your data collected at all.
Default settings, whether for privacy or organ donations, have a powerful effect on people's habits. People tend to stick with what they get, and if the default settings for privacy aren't at the most protective, it's unlikely that most will ever get the benefits of those controls.
Google had previously resisted changing default settings when it came to data controls for advertising. After the company announced updates to ad cookie policies last year, Google's ads chief at the time, Prabhakar Raghavan, defended the decision to make the tools opt-in. He told CNET that making them the default setting wouldn't take care of the issues for consumers or Google's ad ecosystem.
"The idea here is not to, in a broad stroke, say we've solved the problem and there you have it," Raghavan said. "Because the default turn-off doesn't solve the problem." Raghavan was promoted to lead Google's search business earlier this month.
Google said Wednesday that the default setting will only apply to new accounts because the company didn't want to delete the data of existing users without their permission.
Watch this: Let's talk about why privacy settings are a problem
The update also comes as Google already faces severe criticism over its data collection policies from lawmakers and state officials. Last month, the search giant was hit by a consumer fraud lawsuit filed by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, alleging the search giant deceives its users in order to collect location data from their phones. Brnovich's complaint accuses Google of leading people to believe they disabled settings for gathering that type of information, when the settings were still turned on.
Meanwhile, another lawsuit, filed In February by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, alleges Google violates federal child privacy laws through its educational platforms. The lawsuit accuses Google of collecting information on students' locations, their passwords and what websites they've visited.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Wednesday acknowledged the scrutiny from lawmakers. "While policymakers continue their work, we will continue ours -- by challenging ourselves to make helpful products with less data, and raise the bar on privacy for everyone," he wrote in a blog post.
The company said that more than 200 million people have visited its Privacy Checkup tool, and while that's a large amount, it's a fraction of the 2.5 billion people who use Google.
Now that the Auto-Delete features are enabled by default, that privacy protection would extend to everyone rather than just the people who change their settings. There are caveats to Google's announcement, though.
The default deletion only applies to new Google accounts, which means if you're already using the company's services, you still have to go and change your settings. Here's CNET's guide on how to do that.
For active Google users, the company said it would instead be sending reminders and notifications about changing their auto-delete settings. Google also announced it would be revamping its privacy control settings with guided tips and suggestions to make the process easier.
Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest