Attempting to stem the furor over Buzz, Google apologized to users for what many consider an invasion of privacy in their heavily criticized auto-follow feature represents in default mode. Just two days after Buzz launched, Google had to scramble and release its first major privacy update.
Speaking to the changes, Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, said that instead of automatically connecting people, Buzz will in the future merely suggest to new users a group of people they may want to follow or be followed by.
Buzz, if you haven’t heard of it, is Google’s attempt to take on Facebook, Twitter, and Friendfeed’s roles in social media, while strengthening its position as the default for all consumer interactions. Just as Microsoft bundled Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Access and Publisher back in 1994 to create a ‘productivity suite’ called Office, Buzz is Google’s attempt to bundle their standalone communication and sharing services including Gmail, Picasa, Flikr, Google Reader, and YouTube. The goal is to provide a more seamless experience for users that lock consumers into all their services rather than forfeiting customers to other standalone products.
So what’s the Privacy uproar about?
Until now, consumers could assume their Gmail emails were private – except for the data mining of your email that Google performs so they could target ads at you – but other than this, your emails were private. (Note: I find the invasion unacceptable and choose not to use Gmail for anything other than test purposes).
With the advent of Buzz, this assumption of privacy was trashed. Critics argue that Google’s decision to form social networks on e-mail and chat messages as is flawed because unlike social networks that make a person’s list of friends and followers public, Buzz also creates networks based on content found in e-mail conversations.
As Miguel Helft put it in his New York Times article “E-mail, it turns out, can hold many secrets, from the names of personal physicians and illicit lovers to the identities of whistle-blowers and antigovernment activists. And Google, so recently a hero to many people for threatening to leave China after hacking attempts against the Gmail accounts of human rights activists, now finds itself being pilloried as a clumsy violator of privacy.”
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington said, “E-mail is one of the few things that people understand to be private. People thought what they had was an address book for an e-mail program, and Google decided to turn that into a friends list for a new social network.” Rotenberg also announced his organization plans to file a complaint with the FTC claiming that the Google’s use of e-mail conversations to build a social network was unfair and deceptive.
The privacy improvements introduced by Google now give people options up front as they use the service for the first time. These include an option to make the list of those you follow and those following you private or public. You can also now choose to block people not on your Buzz or Google profile, and you can separate your lists by those who already have public Google profiles vs. those that don’t. Learn more in Google tweaks Buzz privacy settings
This isn’t the first time Google has released a new product with privacy settings turned off by default as a way to quickly increase adoption, nor is Google the only company that exposes consumers first, then pulls back to quell the uproar. You don’t have to look further than Facebook’s latest debacle over changes to their privacy settings, or their Beacon functionality to see how quickly some companies will trade consumer privacy and safety for their own visions of expansion.
Sadly, this won’t be the last time we see a company pull this kind of stunt. Indeed this type of behavior will continue until companies learn that consumers will revolt – and that the damage to their reputation will last a lot longer than the time it takes to implement a feature ‘roll-back’.
Speak up and demand companies provide clear choices to consumers BEFORE implementing changes that affect privacy, security, or safety.