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Google’s privacy debacle displays firm’s true colors

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Mon, Feb 15, 2010 at 5:53 pm

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Google’s launch of its social network  "Buzz" and the ensuing outcry from consumers over they way it trampled on their privacy rights says a lot about the Internet giant’s corporate culture.

Clearly the engineers run the place.  Their ethos: if you can do something and it increases efficiency, do it. Write the correct algorithm. Don’t involve people, if you can avoid it. Above all, don’t ask permission; you can always ask forgiveness.

That’s what happened here. Google wanted to kick start its social network. Without asking, it turned Buzz on for every Gmail user.  The service then invaded your  contacts list and automatically set you up to "follow" those to whom you email the most.  The default mode was to publicly list who your were following and and who was following you. There was no easy way to block a follower or hide the lists from public view.

Big Brother Google
, using an algorithm, had set up your social network with whom, again in the default mode, you would share all your posts.  Sure, that was efficient, but didn’t someone at Google understand that people often email folks with whom they have no intention of sharing postings. Just because you email someone, it does not mean they are your friend. Consumers didn’t want some geek’s computer algorithm deciding who was in their Buzz network.

Google responded with some fixes on Thursday that made it easier to block followers and to keep lists of followers and who a consumer was following private.

Saturday the engineers went further and announced fixes that made the following list only suggestions that you had to affirmatively select before they became part of your network. However, the fixes had not arrived in my Gmail account as I wrote this. They also said they would add a Buzz tab under Gmail’s settings that would enable a consumer to hide Buzz or even completely disable it.

Along with the changes came the expected request for forgiveness:

"It’s been an exciting and challenging week for the Buzz team. We’ve been getting feedback via the Gmail help forums and emails from friends and family, and we’ve also been able to do something new: read the buzz about Buzz itself. We quickly realized that we didn’t get everything quite right. We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused and have been working hard ever since to improve things based on your feedback. We’ll continue to do so."

This don’t-ask-permission-you-can-always-ask-foregiveness outlook is completely embedded in Google’s culture.  Consider Google’s project to digitize the world’s books.  Did the company bother to ask the rightsholders for permission? Nope. Google forged ahead because they could.

I’m glad Google is making the changes to protect Buzz users’ privacy. At least now Google is not picking my friends. But the engineers aren’t there yet.  The default mode should be to share the least amount of information with the smallest group of people.  To share publicly should require an opt-in decision. It remains the default.

And for the future, expect more of this sort of thing.  Privacy simply is hardly on the radar screens of Google engineers. They do seem capable of improving things when problems are brought to their attention.  Rest assured  that Consumer Watchdog will continue to focus their attention where it needs to be.

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This post was written by:

John M. Simpson

- who has written 350 posts on Inside Google.

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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