FTC Should Act, Not Talk

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-18 Print this article Print

A Google spokesperson told me:

"User transparency and control are top of mind for us, and we review all products carefully before we roll them out. When we realized that we'd unintentionally made many of our users unhappy, we moved quickly to make significant product improvements to address their concerns. Our door is open to all feedback as we continue to make improvements."

Even Harbour's feedback, so late in the game. Harbour's points have been made ad nauseum and by those with more high-tech know-how. Microsoft Researcher Danah Boyd eloquently dissected the Buzz issue at South-By-Southwest. Read her take on the Buzz imbroglio here.

My advice to the FTC is put up or shut up. Stop imploring and usher more policies and privacy controls into legislation. Require high-tech companies to vet Web services that potentially infringe on users' rights.

Or just sue Google, because that's what government agencies do when they can't figure another way to resolve the problem.

But this high-minded, hyperbolic bluster after the fact is wearing like too little butter on too much bread.

What good does the railing do now that Google has made efforts to redeem itself and its service? Where was the FTC one month ago? Attacking Google would have made better sense then. Now it's just a pile on.  

Still, there is something disturbing about the way large companies with smart people screw up these social services. Facebook's Beacon advertising service, which rendered users' activities visible without their permission, was the first royal snafu of this ilk. That service is now dead.

Buzz is alive, but the Buzz experience revealed serious sociological blind spots, or maybe its just some sort of corporate, hive-minded superego these companies can't check.

Harbour did make the fair point that Google, Facebook and others developing services where user privacy is a factor should stop releasing the features before they are sure they will pass the privacy acid test.  

What Google should do with services such as Buzz to avoid any impropriety or privacy pitfall, is pretest features that may impact privacy with users. Invite select users to test and run the experiment, as Buzz Product Manager Todd Jackson alluded to at SXSW.

As much as this goes against Google's grain, it would be the smarter, smoother move. And it would prevent the pronounced barking from federal officials looking for one last hurrah on the political soapbox.



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