Blown To Bits

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.

3 Responses to “What Was Google Thinking?”

  1. Arvind Narayanan Says:

    My article has a possible explanation of what Google might have been thinking: they kinda knew this was coming, but getting a social network kick-started was so commercially valuable to them that they decided to do it anyway. That’s only speculation, but I haven’t seen a better explanation.

  2. Sawyer Says:

    Without Google, the Chinese are forced to use Baidu, which is securely in the Government’s pocket. Baidu pacifies the people with pirated videos of American Television shows instead of offering quality search results. After living in China and speaking with various students, I feel totally comfortable declaring that baidu is worthless for important researching and fact finding. I recognize it’s admirable of google to slap the chinese government across it’s censoring mouth.. but the end result is really just harming the people, who now have even less information at their disposal.

  3. Harry Lewis Says:

    Arvind, ;maybe you’re right — if you want ALL the world’s information, that had better include the database of who is friends with whom. And yet Google does pick and choose which information it decides to warehouse. It is not, for example, trying to be the repository for the world’s banking information, for example. It is going after personal health records but not hospital databases. And in general it’s actually pretty sensitive to privacy. Without knowing anything about this except what I read in public sources, it feels like there was a management failure here, as though this project got launched prematurely and without review by the right people.

    Sawyer, take a look at my post on this
    which points back to an earlier post and a debate in which I was engaged. It’s certain,y not a simple question, but I think Google will do more good by getting out, and I give them credit for passing on the money they could make there.