Privacy concerns overshadow Google Buzz launch
When first loading Google Buzz, Gmail users are presented with both a list of followers and a list showing whom they are following. Those lists are comprised of the individuals they contact most often on Gmail. That alone isn't a problem.
The issue, according to critics, is that by default those lists can be viewed by anyone looking at a Google user's profile. And in some cases, it reveals contact information that users might not want to get out.
Moreover, critics say, Google Buzz doesn't explicitly tell users about its auto-following feature when they first start using the social network.
The implications of Google making a user's friends' contact information publicly available can't be understated.
As Nicholas Carlson at the Business Insider asserts, journalists rely on anonymous sources that, if they communicate with those sources on Gmail, could conceivably be revealed to the rest of the world. It might also reveal that a user is communicating with people they don't want others to know about. There are serious consequences to making contact lists available to anyone on the Internet.
Displaying lists of users' friends is standard practice in social networks. Twitter, for example, displays all of a user's followers and everyone followed by the user for anyone to see.
But detractors are more concerned with Google Buzz because it's based on e-mail, a more private means of communication. And since Google Buzz automatically adds a person's most-contacted individuals to follower lists, it potentially sheds too much light on a user's e-mail exchanges.
Critics say that Google can fix its alleged blunder by asking users if they'd like to auto-follow those they contact most on Gmail when they first start using the social network. If not, then all the information they'd rather keep private is out of the public eye.
In many ways, privacy runs opposite to social networking. And the onus is on social networks to achieve the right balance.
For the last few years, Facebook has dealt with its own slate of privacy concerns. When it launched new privacy settings late last year, watchdogs complained that a user's basic information and photos were left visible by default. To keep all information hidden, those users would have to change their privacy settings. For its part, Facebook made those privacy settings readily available.
But it realized that the more information users shared, the more engaged visitors would be. That's now a consideration for Google. But like Facebook, keeping information private is relatively easy on Google Buzz. Users can choose to unfollow those they wish to keep away from the public eye.
A better approach requires users to edit their Google profile and uncheck the "Display the list of people I'm following and people following me" box. After doing so, they can still view updates from followers and those they follow, but those lists will be kept private from others. Users who are deeply concerned by Google Buzz can turn the service off entirely by choosing that option at the bottom of their Gmail page.
Whether or not Google Buzz is actually a major privacy concern is up for debate. Detractors say Google should give users more control over the information they share with the public. But social networks are about sharing information. And since Google Buzz already provides settings that let users decide if they want to display friend information, how much further should the company go?
Perhaps it's up to the individual user to decide if Google Buzz is really right for them.
-- Don Reisinger