Google Responds to Shared Reader Privacy Furor

Google learns from its Reader fiasco that sharing is not the same as caring.

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It seems trying to make the Web more social is tricky for even Google, which prides itself on exercising caution before implementing new features that affect users.

Following a privacy stir that ranked a few notches below Facebook's Beacon social advertising debacle, Google said it has no current plans to change a feature in its Google Reader application that shares tags for what users have read with their contacts in Google Talk.

However, the company is looking at ways to provide its Reader users with greater control over how their content is shared with others.

The trouble began brewing Dec. 14 when Google linked Reader, which helps users keep track of new content on their favorite Web sites on a single page, with its Google Talk instant messaging software to make users' shared items visible to their Google Talk friends.

Google provided an option to let users clear their shared items in case they didn't want their friends to see what they've shared, as well as a settings page so users could choose which friends could see the tags and invite friends who weren't yet sharing to try it out.

The change seemed harmless enough.

However, as with Facebook's Beacon, which incensed users in November by sharing their online activities with friends, it's clear Google didn't anticipate the results. Several users were offended after they discovered everyone in their Talk contact lists could view what they had tagged and shared.


Facebook users protest Beacon. Click here to read more.

As a result, a feature designed to make sharing easier led to a brouhaha in the blogosphere, thanks to several irate posts on Google's Groups forum.

"I know that you at Google really love getting as many people sharing information with each other, whee! But consider for a second that maybe I don't talk to my mother and my boss about the same things that I do with my best friends, yes?" wrote Reader user Modulo Noh Dec. 14.


Google Reader Product Manager Chrix Finne said in a Dec. 26 blog post Google had underestimated the number of users who were using the Share button to send stories to a limited number of people.

To make it clear what users are getting into with the Reader sharing feature, Finne detailed several ways to share items without letting all Google Talk friends see them.

A Google spokesperson told eWEEK Dec. 27 that while Google has not made any changes to the Reader sharing feature, the company is looking at "ways to add granularity and flexibility."


Granularity refers to finer technical provisions that could give users greater control over what kind of content is shared, how it is shared and with whom. Facebook and other social networking sites include such controls.

"We're pretty clear in saying that this is an experimental feature, that we want to make Reader more social and do it in a way that is consistent with our privacy practices, and it's by no means a closed case," the spokesperson said.

The issue comes at a time when Facebook, Google and others are struggling to share information from different applications to make the Web a more seamless, social experience, as success in this vein could lead to more users clicking on online ads.


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