On April 20, Google was sent a letter from 10 countries around the world urging the search giant to do a better job of safeguarding user privacy. The letter specifically targeted the Google Buzz social networking service, as well as Google Street View. For its part, Google said it has commented on privacy issues in the past and wouldn’t discuss it further. Such a response makes sense. Google has been faced with privacy concerns for quite a while now. And each time, the company has responded. Addressing yet another privacy letter probably wouldn’t help its cause all that much.
But that doesn’t mean Google shouldn’t take these countries’ message to heart. Google hasn’t been the most privacy-conscious company on the Web for quite some time. With Buzz and Street View, Google has engaged in some practices that have made privacy watchdogs raise an eyebrow. It’s not that Google is untrustworthy-the company can definitely be trusted-but it has made several privacy missteps in the false belief that users would either accept its policies or ignore them. And now, Google finds itself in the unenviable position of being forced to deal with privacy complaints.
Google needs to work harder at improving user privacy. Here are 10 issues it can’t ignore.
1. Google Street View can be intrusive without proper vetting
As useful as Street View is, European countries especially have had some objections to it. Some originally contended that Google was showing enough identifying information to potentially violate a person’s privacy. In response, Google has removed all identifying information in those countries so that no one can determine who might be in a particular picture. It’s a good first step. But the reality is, Street View can be intrusive if the search giant doesn’t consistently vet its images. When the service was first launched, several non-Google Websites cropped up showing interesting, funny and sometimes scary findings in Street View. The service has become integral to Google’s slate of offerings, but it arguably needs to offer the most privacy of any Google tool.
2. Users largely want anonymity
Although the Internet is becoming increasingly social and some Web users are coming out of the shadows to reveal their true identity, the Internet is still a place of anonymity. As much as Google might want to push Web users forward and get them away from anonymity, users still want it. Google needs to appreciate that. Helping make the Web more open is fine. But ostracizing users who rebel against that move isn’t the best idea.
3. Bundling a social network with an e-mail program isn’t always best
The countries that wrote the letter to Google took issue with the search giant’s decision to bundle Buzz with an e-mail program. They contended that a social tool has no place in a “one-to-one” messaging platform. It’s not the craziest thing I’ve heard. When Google launched Buzz, it allowed a user’s most contacted Gmail acquaintances to be viewed by friends. Users also weren’t able to hide specific information when it first launched, which caused some folks to stay away from Buzz. Google eventually fixed the social network’s privacy issues, but it called into question the company’s decision to offer social networking in an e-mail program. In retrospect, Google probably wouldn’t do that again.
4. Users trust long track records
If nothing else, Web users want to know that they can trust a company for the long haul. Any online company that has a long track record of protecting the privacy of its users typically enjoys far more loyalty than others that don’t. Google needs to remember that although it’s arguably the most important Web company, it can’t be complacent about privacy. Microsoft is starting to gain some ground on Google online. If it can make moves that would cause users to trust it more than Google, it could cause trouble for the search giant. The longer the privacy track record, the better.
Users Want Options
5. It doesn’t have to be absolute
All this talk of privacy might seem to imply that Google must, at all times, protect every last inch of its users’ privacy. That just isn’t true. Google should work hard to protect the privacy of its users as much as possible. But it also shouldn’t go overboard. Yes, privacy is important and users will expect it. But there is a point when users are willing to forgo some privacy for the sake of using a product. Consider social networks, like Facebook or MySpace, or location-based tools like Foursquare. They have been successful because of the free flow of information. Privacy doesn’t mean Google needs to keep all of a user’s information indefinitely hidden from the rest of the world.
6. Privacy must win in a battle with information
When running a social network, a company needs to find the right balance between privacy and making information available. Since having more information be available to other users will increase engagement, companies like Facebook, MySpace and now Google want users to share as much as possible. At the same time, forcing users to share information they might not feel comfortable sending out on the Web isn’t a smart idea either. Facebook has struck a good balance in this area; Google needs to do the same.
7. Give users options
Facebook was able to strike the right balance between information availability and privacy by giving users far more control over their personal privacy than any other social network on the market. After being criticized by privacy watchdogs over some missteps, Facebook delivered outstanding privacy controls. Users can decide how much of their information can be shared and with whom. Google has done a better job of giving users options with Buzz, but considering how popular Facebook’s tool has been, maybe the search giant should consider offering similarly extensive controls.
8. Honesty is important
The last thing Google should do is become misleading in its handling of privacy. Web users don’t respect companies that make promises about privacy but don’t follow through. Google needs to remember that. So far, the search giant has done a good job of handling the privacy concerns users have and it has been honest along the way. But sometimes Web companies get caught in the trap of promising something and never truly delivering it. Google cannot become one of those companies. Honesty about how it will (and won’t) protect user privacy is extremely important.
9. Your mantra means something
When Google first came up with the slogan, “Don’t be evil,” it was nothing more than a way to rally troops. But that slogan now means something to Web users around the world. Because users know Google shouldn’t “be evil,” they expect the company to make the right moves every time. Admittedly, that’s impossible. At the same time, Google can’t lose sight of the fact that that is what people expect. The company needs to make a concerted effort to prove to the world that although it has had some privacy missteps in the past, it is staying true to its motto and will do everything it can to not be evil. If its actions reflect that, Google will find its user base even more loyal than before.
10. Think before you act
Google’s privacy problems in the past couple years have seemingly shown that the company isn’t thinking before releasing a product. Google should have known better than to display a user’s most contacted friends when Buzz launched. It should also have known that users would want better control over privacy. It seemed like Google wanted to rush Buzz out, rather than take a step back, evaluate what needed to be done to appeal to users and then do it before it was released. Instead, Buzz was released before it was ready and was forced to face the critics.
Think before you act, Google. It might not be convenient, but it’s the smart move.