Microsoft updates service terms; follows in Google's footsteps

While Microsoft's has clearly learned from Google's privacy policy disaster, the Redmond giant's new service agreement skirts close to the edges.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

Microsoft has updated its services agreement to include minor changes to its terms of usage for its online services, including a clause that may allow Google-like data sharing across its cloud and desktop services.

The agreement, which governs Windows Live products -- now dubbed Microsoft "branded services" -- and other online services such as Office.com, MSN, and Bing, also includes a clause that requires U.S. users to settle disputes through arbitration rather than litigation. 

The new agreement, set to go into force on October 19, 2012, changes the language to allow Microsoft to use customer content to "provide, protect and improve Microsoft products and services" where previously it was "solely to the extent necessary to provide the service."

There are, however, a couple of distinct changes that may ruffle some feathers in Brussels, only a few months after Google updated and consolidated its privacy that sparked an in-depth EU investigation

Microsoft's new terms state at point 3.3

When you upload your content to the services, you agree that it may be used, modified, adapted, saved, reproduced, distributed, and displayed to the extent necessary to protect you and to provide, protect and improve Microsoft products and services.

This could mean anything.

Microsoft gives two examples, such as a scenario in which it "may occasionally use automated means to isolate information from email, chats, or photos in order to help detect and protect against spam and malware," or "to improve the services with new features that makes them easier to use."

But examples are not use-cases. Examples are not what the company will do under a circumstance, more like guidance for the user in easy-to-read plain text. Questions have been put in to Microsoft's U.K. team outside of U.S. business hours and we'll update if we hear back. 

In an email acquired by ZDNet, sent to customers informing them of the changes, it states (emphasis mine):

We also clarified how Microsoft uses your content to better protect consumers and improve our products, including aligning our usage to the way we're designing our cloud services to be highly integrated across many Microsoft products. We realize you may have personal conversations and store personal files using our products, and we want you to know that we prioritize your privacy.

One of the concerns with this would be as Microsoft increases its cloud offering in the run-up to Windows 8's release, which has a bevy of cloud-supported features, is that user data could be shared across Microsoft's services to personalize other results, or take user content from Hotmail, Office.com or its SkyDrive cloud-storage service to make its other services better.

It's not quite "doing a Google," but it certainly skirts around the edges. 

Earlier this year, Google consolidated its 70-odd privacy policies into one super-policy, and came into effect on March 1. Users couldn't opt out of the changes, meaning though users were notified on Google's front page and through its services -- such as Gmail and Google+ -- users would be forced to stop using the service if they declined to abide by the new policy. 

Google claimed the new policy would allow better search results and more accurate, targeted advertising -- the forefront of its business -- while critics argued it would allow advertisers and third-parties to build up greater, more detailed pictures of Google's users.

EU regulators asked for Google to put the changes on ice until it determines whether or not the policy changes would fall foul of European privacy and data protection law.

A delayed decision on the final outcome to the EU investigation into Google's privacy policy will be revealed later this month.

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