Peace Breaks Out

Yesterday's announcement of Yahoo joining with Google and MySpace to form an OpenSocial Foundation may have seemed like good news for social media developers, but for me it was a golden opportunity of a different type. For months now, I've been on a rampage about Google's violations of user privacy with its Google Reader, GTalk, and Gmail products, and here was finally a great chance to rain on the interoperability parade. That is, until the call came in.

To recap, Facebook has a social network and no revenue. Google has what looks like a social network lurking inside its suite of on-demand Office tools, tons of revenue, and no legitimate way to turn all of that metadata about not just what we share but who we share it with into gold. The pesky problem Google has is something called the social contract.

When I first saw Gmail in its invite-only beta release in May 2005, I couldn't believe my eyes: unlimited storage, threaded conversations, worked on any machine or OS, and free. The deal was pretty simple. Google provided the service, I provided the lock-in, my own handcuffs in the form of my data, poured into the ever-expanding gigabytes of storage as the years rolled by. The performance kept just ahead of the early adopters, then the friends of those adopters, then the emerging subclass of information workers who used Gmail as a conduit around IT and in between jobs and corporate Exchange servers.

Then Gtalk shipped (a euphemism for the previous CD-bound era that morphed into zero-footprint upgrades released in between page refreshes). The IM client leveraged the open-source Jabber infrastructure and stitched IM, e-mail, and note-taking into a seamless fabric all flowing into the Google cloud. Again, free in return for ultimate allegiance and all your data. It was a Damn Yankees pact for sure; you knew the favor would be called in, but somehow just not right now, thanks.

Of course, all along we knew what we were getting into. It stared right at us in the right margin of each e-mail, the scoped links that drew their relevance from our private communications. The sponsored links offered for this post so far (I e-mailed it to myself) include The intelligent factory: virtual product and production planning (Siemens); Java distributed: Scalable High Performance Data Grid Download White Papers (Gemstone); Better Quality Computers, Lower Prices and More Choice (AMD); free IM & VOIP for everyone at your domain (Google); and something called Real-Time DB for NCOW where ANTs Data Server gets the data to the right place in real time (ANTs).

The deal is simple: These ads are just for you, unread by humans or the IRS, just these cute little algorithms massaging your closest-held secrets into helpful recommendations. It's the Amazon suggestions up- and cross-sell model, and as with Google's AdSense and AdWords, sufficiently relevant and click-inducing to pass the smell test for users. The social contract: You keep this private and we'll give you all our clicks.

But what happens if you start to get the feeling that this data is being used outside your control for purposes you never understood were intended or possible? Data leaks such as the AOL release of anonymous search keyword patterns brought the notion that all these clicks are being recorded to public attention (don't search for how to murder your husband). But typing those words in Gmail seemed safer (I'll leave it to you to see what that brings up) as long as Google was transparent about how it uses this data not just in Gmail but everywhere in its services.

That confidence hit the skids for me when Google released a new feature that surfaced previously private Google Reader shared RSS items, based on what Google decided were friends based on user behavior with Gtalk, Gmail and its Contacts lists. Suddenly actions taken in one social context (chatting and e-mail) were mined to provide access to an unguessable URL containing shared items going back in my case for at least three years.

You could argue (and many including Google have) that shared means shared, but the social contract in which I engaged to use this feature included an unguessable URL so I could e-mail or IM the link to people under my control, not the whim of a simple but somewhat coarse algorithm that could turn a troll maintenance exchange into a friendship. In essence, two acceptable social contracts combined to produce a disruptive third one in the worst sense of the word, disrupting my confidence in Google's previously transparent and equitable use of my behavioral data.

Google compounded the problem by essentially telling us to pound sand when a Slashdot outcry bubbled up. Yes, Google, we now understand that shared means it could be shared with random "friends" around the network, but what about all the shared items I've been sharing with human-selected friends going back several years? Well, said Google, you can turn off the shared feed globally (thereby deleting a valuable archive from Day One) or you can delete your friends one by one from your contacts list.

But remember the context of this response, the week following Facebook's Beacon PR disaster, where misuse of user behavior without any opt-in and ephemeral opt-out (here's this little requester that we're showing you that says, wait a minute, the phone is ringing, and ... gone) produced a firestorm and the eventual Big Backoff. Google, on the other hand: Have a nice day.

Until the call came in. I've been complaining about Google's intransigence, Nixonian stonewalling, etc., in a series of posts, Gang episodes, and NewsGang Lives, and Google has played along by being absolutely deaf, dumb and silent. Yesterday, when the OpenSocial Foundation was announced, Marshall Kirkpatrick invited me to comment in a live blogging post on ReadWriteWeb where I suggested that socially corrupt contact and behavioral data would flow over this industry alliance, poisoning the aggregate pool of data and serving as a back-room deal to create a poison pill to block the Microsoft Yahoo acquisition to boot. Reminiscent too of the Microsoft-IBM freezeout of Sun in the WS-I interoperability gambit back in the good old Web services days.

Then the phone rang. A Google official who will remain nameless for the moment was suddenly on the phone, listening, offering words of understanding and agreement, things like "Google must be responsive to users" and "yes, good point," and in general completely ruining this entire head of steam I've been building and cultivating for months now. Now, the news isn't all bad (good?). I drew some faint hope when Mr. X suggested that he in fact wasn't the right person to actually get something done, and we spent a few minutes figuring out who that person might be. Perhaps the lid will go back on and silence will again break out.

But for now, as I await the next step, I'm left with the strong possibility that peace may be breaking out. My boss is not pleased.