Privacy Snafus Threaten to Make Google Buzz Beacon 2

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-02-22 Print this article Print

Oodles are being written about Google Buzz being a privacy train wreck that Google, with all of its wise engineering talent, could not foresee.

And perhaps that's the problem. Googlers excel at logic-based algorithms, engineering challenges and cool coding. Now Google is being undermined by its apparent inability to see outside the Googleplex window and understand how the rest of the world might not see that everything they're doing is so cool and helpful. Got hubris?

Google has seen Buzz put on the Federal Trade Commission's insidious-services-to-watch radar by the privacy watchdogs at EPIC and sued, class-action style, a sign that the people have spoken.

Now Altimeter Group's Charlene Li (perhaps no analyst is more qualified to comment with clarity on social services), who raises the alarms for soccer moms and protective dads everywhere that Buzz is too easy for children to use and therefore perhaps not private enough.

Li notes how her 9-year-old daughter used Buzz with her friends, not cognizant of the fact that her Buzz was posted for all of the Buzzing world to see:

Pretty innocuous, but it was PUBLIC! I saw it because Buzz conveniently made me a follower of hers. I pride myself on staying ahead of my kids, but this time, my kid got ahead of me. She used Buzz without fully understanding that what she thought was a private conversation with her friends was in fact very much public.

Fortunately, this was her only Buzz posting. But what was most disturbing was looking at her friends' conversations and realizing that some of them were chatting with complete strangers, and in some cases, sharing personal information like emails. Absolutely terrifying as these are 4th graders who have no clue.

I've e-mailed Li to see if she would join the class-action suite versus Google. Will update if she responds. Update: Li responded:

No plans to, and besides, I am/was in violation of their TOS so I have no grounds. Besides, I'd rather have the moral victory of spreading the word and making sure kids are safe from Buzz. Thank goodness nothing serious happened, but it was pretty shocking to see "iorgyinbathrooms" following my daughter on Buzz!

Update 2: Google weighed in on the situation, suggesting that Li and others should watch what their kids are up to:

We designed Buzz to make it easy to have conversations with your friends about the things that interest you. Keeping kids safe online is very important to us. You must have a Google account to use Buzz, and we require all new Google account users to provide birth dates to keep children under 13 from signing up for Google accounts. Since we launched Buzz, we've listened to the feedback from our users and have made many product improvements to address their concerns. It's still early, and we have a long list of improvements on the way. We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user control top of mind. Even as we roll out these changes, we think it's important to remember that there's no substitute for parental supervision to keep kids safe on the Internet.

Yes, Li failed to prevent her daughter from accessing Buzz. But Li's story adds to the public relations nightmare Google is facing over Buzz. So, not only were ex-wives' contacts exposed to allegedly dangerous ex-husbands, but kids are getting onto Buzz and posting willy nilly, or with Piggy Pictures (as Li's daughter did).

This is not good, considering all of the unsavory characters lurking online. This is the sort of powder people put in their privacy keg to light.

The comments following some of my stories on Buzz are full of anger and wrath that would make Kevin Spacey's character from "Seven" seem harmless. Well, maybe not, but if there were a way to stuff Google's head in a box, you can bet some readers would. One reader wrote me:

What breathtaking stupidity. Google flips a switch, violates the privacy of literally millions of people, and then brazenly says they don't believe in releasing a "finished" product. How many people were endangered, physically and professionally, by having Google unilaterally reveal what they had considered private? May the class-action suit remind Google that holding information brings responsibilities.

All of this brings back memories of Beacon, that disastrous Facebook advertising effort that worked great until people found it revealed things about them they had no desire to share with certain people (like gift purchases).

Amazing how socially engineered services from super-smart programmers at elite companies such as Facebook and Google can be so socially retarded, isn't it?

One thing Google has going for it, as it pointed out, is that it's listening to users. It's reading the feedback. Googlers have read Li's post and are probably mulling additional changes on top of those Google Product Management VP Bradley Horowitz already discussed with me last week.

While Facebook balked at changes, then hedged and took a few attempts at getting Beacon right before admitting failure and shuttering it, Google has seemingly bent over backward to make people happy, or at least content that the company is taking steps to safeguard their privacy.

This will be an ongoing process. In fact, it's actually turned into a huge crowdsourcing experiment, with users complaining and suggesting changes and Google acting on them pretty rapidly. It's been fun to watch Buzz evolve in the two weeks since it launched.

Buzz users won't be happy until they have total, granular control over their privacy; they have a fundamental right to it. So keep complaining and telling Google what you don't like.

Offering constructive criticism the way Li did is the best way to go, but whatever works for you.

Google will fix it and if it doesn't, Buzz will go Bust. Just like Beacon did. |

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