A Bark Worse Than the Bite?

Or should I say the Buzz is worse than the Sting? Sorry for the bad pun. On the drive in this morning it was the snappiest lead-in I could conjure other than FizzyFuzzy Big & Buzzy. And I know the reference to a one-hit-wonder band from 1996 would probably be lost on nearly everyone.

If you’ve spent any time on the interwebs in the last week you have to be aware of the controversy surrounding Google Buzz and the serious complaints regarding the privacy violations of Gmail users. This includes a class action lawsuit filed on Wednesday. If you have been under a rock, or only get your news from the Lorton Data Blog (unlikely) here is a quick summary. Google released a product called Google Buzz to directly compete with social media products like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (okay, there really isn’t a need to compete with MySpace). Since social media products only look snazzy when you have lots of interaction, Google automatically opted in every single Gmail account and made their contact lists public! That’s 31.2 million users. To put this in perspective, it’s as if Google released the names and contact information for every single person in Canada over the age of five and to whom they communicate. That’s family, friends, business associates, current and former significant others, association members, your kid’s hockey team, curling buddies, attorneys and everyone else you can think of. It’s an understatement to say that those are pretty serious privacy and security principles to overlook. Normally, I’d make a reference to SkyNet here, but The Consumerist beat me to the punch.

Here’s what I don’t get. At Lorton Data, I get worried if I go fifteen minutes without hearing the words: ‘security,’ ‘privacy,’ ‘coffee’ and ‘more.’ As an organization, we are trusted with private and confidential information all day long, and often late into the night. With our recently completed SAS 70 process, security and privacy discussions have become even more focused. If you have private information on a population the size of Canada, how do you overlook the basic idea that it would be nice to allow people to consent before their private communication lists are nakedly exposed to the rest of the country? If I get itchy running National Change of Address on a mailing list for the International Red Swingline Enthusiasts of Walla Walla, Washington, how come no one at Google thought this might be a bad idea?

With Facebook, I don’t always appreciate, but I do understand their attitude toward privacy. Notions of privacy have changed and what was once considered strictly private is now welcome in the public sphere. We’ve opted in to Facebook with the understanding that we can share information with others in our network, and with their ever-evolving privacy policy we’ll continue to share more than we may have anticipated originally. That’s an inherent risk we have to accept to play Bejeweled Blitz and look at photos of our friends’ new babies.

Google and Gmail are a different entity entirely. While Facebook tightropes the line between private and public spaces, we have an assumed anonymity and privacy with email. We expect our communication to go from the sender to the receiver without anyone else peeking in to that communication. We also expect that when we click send, no one else knows who we are writing to unless we choose to tell someone about it. That’s normally over a beer at the bar, not shared with enough people to replace nearly everyone up north. While I love my soccer, kickball and broomball teammates, the people the wife and I invited to our wedding, my Brown’s Backers Club, my city, state and county government contacts and the myriad of attorneys I know; you don’t need to know that I am emailing them. If you want to know who I am connected to, friend me on Facebook or on LinkedIn. At least then, I’ll know and understand the social contract we are entering.

I am happy to use Gmail for my email. Google is really good at that. But given what’s happened with their first foray into competitive social media, I’d say they aren’t very good at understanding that there are still expected limits on privacy and confidentiality in these digital times.

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One Response to “A Bark Worse Than the Bite?”

  1. Paul says:

    Great article Joel! Google knew what they were doing the entire time. I believe it all started when they released “Google Wave” and had issues b/c users did not have enough friends/contacts to jump start the service into widespread use.

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