What Was Google Thinking?Saturday, February 13th, 2010 by Harry Lewis
Sigh. It is so sad to see Google lurch from doing the wrong thing (helping the Chinese thought control regime) to doing the right thing (announcing they’d rather lose the business than keep censoring in China) to doing a spectacularly wrong thing: The much-hyped Buzz social network service sets up your initial group of contacts from the list of people with whom you’ve been exchanging email and instant messages. And then makes that list of contacts public to the world. So lawyers could be exposing their clients, doctors their patients, husbands their mistresses, journalists their tipsters, you name it.
Buzz is an opt-out service–you’re in it until you tell Google you want to be out. And it is hard to get out (though in the past few days Google has, in response to the furious reaction it’s gotten, made the instructions a bit more visible). Even if you get out of Buzz, however, your secret lover may be exposing you. Happy Valentine’s Day!
This reminds me of Facebook’s Beacon fiasco, in which the company did not think through the consequences of having members announce to their friends what they were buying. Except worse, because ANYBODY knows that your email contacts are private information. How could Google not have had this pointed out to them in some focus group? For that matter, don’t they employ some house skeptics who are there just to point out the kinds of flaws that lots of bloggers pointed out almost immediately after the product was released?
Google’s response, according to today’s New York Times, is that a lot of people like the way it works. Which I am sure is true, and is a reason why big industries get regulated. The interests of minorities, no matter how serious, are not as important as providing the majority a product they like. Except that this time it looks like Google miscalculated the size of the minority of people concerned about their privacy, and the intensity of their feelings. I hope Google, like Toyota, is doing some soul-searching about how they got into their current pickle.
Thanks to danah boyd for pointing me to this excellent post from a lawyers’ blog explaining and analyzing the privacy problem and giving specific instructions about how to turn Buzz off. Very much worth a read.