Google and the privacy Buzz

Google Buzz launched a couple days to quite a bit of interest and speculation from a number of people, myself included. If you don’t know what Google Buzz is, watch this short video before you continue reading:

Buzz is Google’s long overdue social network/framework. Google has had social elements for some time now (the Friend Connect panel in the sidebar to the right is a good example of one of these elements) but Buzz is the first real service that starts to tie Google users’ social experience of the Web together into a relatively coherent service. I am pretty excited about Google Buzz, myself, partly because I see it as a real alternative to Facebook and the growing privacy fiend Facebook is becoming. I also prefer Google services because of Google’s efforts to be more transparent about and help users safeguard their personal information. That being said, Buzz has launched with a few poor privacy-related decisions.

For all the excitement about Google Buzz, there are a number of privacy concerns about the service because of the way that it works, particularly when you first add Buzz to your Gmail account. One of the major concerns is how Buzz automatically adds users as their contacts’ followers and vice versa. To add to this, followers and people you are following is visible by default in your Google profile, your focal point of your Google Buzz experience. This default visibility setting is reminiscent of Facebook’s decision to expose users’ profiles and content to the public Web recently and an observer would have been excused for thinking that after that hubbub, Google would have made different choices. Update: The Gmail team has made a further set of changes to Buzz which address a number of these concerns. Take a look at my follow-up post for more information together with a couple tips you may find useful.

Another concern is that using a Google profile as a Buzz user’s identity exposes the user’s email address to anyone paying attention. This is problematic for people who prefer to keep their email addresses private. Molly Wood published a post titled “Google Buzz: Privacy nightmare” highlighting these and other concerns the other day. Her post is worth reading. It also doesn’t help that, by default, Buzz updates appear in your Gmail inbox and can clog it up pretty quickly (Lifehacker published a post with directions how to keep your Buzz updates out of your inbox). Its safe to say that Google Buzz got off to a somewhat rocky start.

Unlike Facebook, the Gmail team took notice of the feedback it received about these and other issues and published a post yesterday about a few changes they have made to Buzz and its various notifications:

1. More visible option to not show followers/people you follow on your public profile
If you don’t want to share the lists of people who are following you and people you are following publicly on your profile, you can always opt out during the profile set-up when you first use Buzz or at any time from the edit profile page. We are making this option more prominent in the set up process, to ensure everyone who wanted to hide these lists can do so easily.

2. Ability to block anyone who starts following you
We are making it easier to block anyone, by adding “Block” links to the list of people following you. Previously, you were only able to block people from following you after they had created a public profile. Now, you can block anyone, regardless of whether or not they’ve already created profiles for themselves.

3. More clarity on which of your followers/people you follow can appear on your public profile
Initially, we showed you a list of all the people who would be following you once they created a public profile. However, only those contacts who had already created a public profile would show up on your public follower list. We’re making this clearer by explicitly distinguishing which of your followers have public profiles and will show in your public list of followers. With this change you’ll be able to see who is on the public list of followers that everyone else sees.

Of course it is also a good idea to read the privacy policy that applies to Google Buzz because that is the legal framework that governs Google’s use of your personal information. The Google Buzz Privacy Policy is meant to be read with the Google’s general privacy policy and really highlights privacy information specific to Buzz. Like a number of better policy documents published these days, the Google Buzz Privacy Policy is written in plain language. There are a couple points to note when reading the privacy policy:

  • In order to use Google Buzz, you must have a public Google profile that contains your first and last names at a minimum;
  • When you first use Buzz, Google selects contacts for you to follow based on who you email and/or chat to the most (big takeaway here is that Google knows who you are most frequently communicating with although it is unclear where this knowledge resides and how accessible it is);
  • Your name, photo and followers lists will be displayed on your Google profile which is, in turn, publicly searchable (the policy later specifies that you can “opt out of displaying the list of people you follow and people who follow you on your Google profile”);
  • You could be associated with your contacts if they follow you or if you follow them by virtue of their publicity settings;
  • Private postings could become semi- or completely public if you add participants using the “@ reply” convention Buzz uses for replies to other users because this mechanism works like a “reply to” setting in your email;
  • You have the option of posting publicly or to more private contact lists.

It is also important to bear in mind that Google Buzz ties in with other Google services you may be using including a pre-existing Google Profile (Google integrates your contacts/follower lists from services you add to your Google Profile into Google Buzz). If you choose to add other social services to Buzz, public postings to those services will appear in your Buzz stream (there are real-world implications for these posts privacy sensitive users should be aware of).

At the moment Buzz is limited to Gmail accounts but it will soon be extended to Google Apps accounts (basically, people who use Google Mail and other services in conjunction with their domain names). This means businesses, schools and non-profits will soon have Google Buzz as an option where those organisations use Google Apps as their outsourced infrastructure. I imagine that when this happens, the administrators of those accounts will have to add Buzz as an available service before it becomes available to users. It will presumably still be an opt-in service at that point too.

Google Buzz is a significant social service because of which company created it and the stakes involved. Google’s primary competitor in the social space is Facebook which, I believe, now has over 400 million users.

As Google Buzz develops it will either gain substantial traction or become another mildly successful Orkut, in the process giving way to Facebook. If Buzz does gain real traction and begins to compete effectively with Facebook it will be crucial that Google handles the enormous amount of personal information it gathers transparently and in a manner that protects its users rights. The alternative is a social Web dominated by Facebook and Facebook doesn’t exactly have a sterling record when it comes to personal information.

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