Microsoft Researcher Chides Google Buzz, Facebook for Privacy Snafus

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-15

Microsoft Researcher Chides Google Buzz, Facebook for Privacy Snafus

A Microsoft researcher called out Google and Facebook for their recent privacy snafus, criticizing the Internet companies for taking liberties with users' personal information for new product launches.

Danah Boyd, who studies social networking against the backdrop of sociological theory for Microsoft Research, gave Google Buzz the dreaded FAIL designation at the SXSW show in Austin, Texas March 13.

"What the outrage around Google Buzz showed us is that people care deeply about privacy and control," said Boyd, who paraphrased her talk on her blog here. "Don't get me wrong -- plenty of people will use the service and it will be extremely popular, but this doesn't mean Google didn't screw up. They're taking a hit in terms of trust, because not everyone benefited from what they did."

Boyd said Buzz, a social networking stream that leverages contacts in users Google Gmail accounts to spur conversations among friends and strangers alike, erred by displaying Gmail contacts by default on users' Google profiles. Users could opt out of this, but instructions were initially vague and users had to delete their Google Profiles to exit Buzz entirely.

Several users took issue with this when Google launched the service Feb. 9, and Google responded by making privacy controls more visible, adding additional controls and inbox management features to cut down some of the prodigious noise generated in buzz.

While Boyd said the Google Buzz team, led by Todd Jackson, created a technologically sound product with several opt-outs, the product ultimately skewered users' social expectations."

For example, Google made information Gmail users knew to be private -- their contacts -- and made them public for users who opted into Buzz.

"Instead of asking new Buzz users if they wanted to see who else that they know on Google services might be using Buzz, they pre-populated a list and provided it to them as their default list of friends. This made people feel downright creeped out," Boyd argued.

"The result? Confused users believed that their e-mails were being made publicly accessible. While this was never the case, the integration confused people and gave them the wrong impression about the service. This created unnecessary panic amongst users, resulting in bad PR for Google that was technologically inaccurate."

Boyd says Facebook Privacy Settings Also FAIL

Boyd also said Google assumed that people would opt-out of Buzz if they didn't want to participate, but sounded like she didn't believe this.

"I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one because a more insidious framing would be to say that they wanted to force people into opting-in because this makes the service more viral and more monetizable. While I'm trying not to let conspiracy theories cloud my analysis, I can't help but notice that more and more companies are opting people in and waiting until they flip out to adjust privacy settings."

Interestingly, Buzz leader Jackson said at SXSW that Google may pre-test future Buzz features with small subsets of users. Google does this bucket-testing with several other products, including search and ads.

Facebook, Boyd said, provided another FAIL on the privacy front when it refreshed its social network with a number of privacy-related changes.

These included the ability to control who sees what piece of content on a user's page, a Transition Tool and simplified privacy settings. However, some users blasted Facebook for changing the default privacy settings so that users are automatically sharing data at the most open level possible. Boyd ran a little experiment of her own:

"I started asking non-techy users about their privacy settings on Facebook. I ask them what they think their settings are and then ask them to look at their settings with me. I have yet to find someone whose belief matched up with their reality. That is not good news.

Facebook built its name and reputation on being a closed network that enabled privacy in new ways, something that its users deeply value and STILL believe is the case. Are there Facebook users who want their content to be publicly accessible? Of course. But 65 percent of all Facebook users? No way."

She added: "There's a big difference between something being publicly available and being publicized. I worry about how others are going to publicize this publicly available Facebook data and, more importantly, who will get hurt in the cross-fire."

That a Microsoft researcher is taking Google and Facebook to task for privacy issues is something of a pot-meet-kettle issue.

Microsoft's software, particularly the Internet Explorer Web browser, has been the butt of many jokes and the source of angst for its severe security flaws that expose users' information, and hence, threatened their privacy.

But Microsoft lags behind Google and Facebook on the Web, so it is in the unenviable position of looking up at more successful Internet companies. Naturally, Microsoft may have a mind to take these rivals down with words, if not by technological superiority.


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