Michele Bate Google creates a negative buzz
Jinfo Blog

Monday, 22nd February 2010

By Michele Bate


When Google launched Buzz two weeks ago, it can’t have anticipated the furore it would create. Designed to integrate into Gmail, the new social networking and messaging tool is supposed to help bridge the gap between work and leisure, according to Google’s Sergey Brin. The official description on the Google website reads: “Go beyond status messages. Share updates, photos, videos, and more. Start conversations about the things you find interesting.” It integrates Picasa, Flickr, Google Reader, YouTube, Blogger, and Twitter. Unsurprisingly, there is also a mobile phone app version. (http://www.google.com/buzz) So far, so innocuous. However, as soon as it was rolled out, privacy concerns were aired and writs flew. Its auto-follow feature meant that users’ Picasa Web Albums and Google Reader items were suddenly being shared with all their contacts. Buzz also compiled a list of the Gmail contacts who users most frequently emailed or chatted with. It automatically started following those people and made the list public, meaning strangers were able to see who Buzz users had been in contact with. Not good for those of us who routinely mix up our work, business and social contacts in the same pot. Although possible to opt out, these “features” were automatically switched on, requiring intervention by the user to disable them. The mobile version of Google Buzz by default published the user's exact location when they posted a message to the service – another cause for concern. As highlighted in Resource Shelf, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, urging it to open an investigation into Google Buzz. EPIC alleges that in trying to transform its popular email service into an untested social networking service, the change in business practices "violated user expectations, diminished user privacy, contradicted Google's privacy policy, and may have violated federal wiretap laws" and clearly harmed Gmail subscribers. (http://digbig.com/5bbcww) Last week, a student at Harvard Law School filed a lawsuit against Google, making claims under US federal law for alleged violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act, in addition to California statutory and common-law claims. The student hopes to represent millions of Gmail users potentially affected by the way Google Buzz was implemented. (http://digbig.com/5bbcwy) In response to the criticism, Google has backtracked and changed the “auto-follow” facility to “auto-suggest”. There is still cause for concern, because the onus is on individual users to ensure that they understand the implications of selecting who to follow and who they want to follow them and that they are happy with the resulting privacy levels. What is interesting is that in trying to emulate Facebook, Google has fallen prey to the same problems. When Facebook “simplified” its privacy settings and changed the defaults last year to show much more public information, it provoked a similar uproar. It is good to see that consumers are standing up against contraventions of privacy in the form of so-called “improvements” that are supposedly introduced for our own good.

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