Does Google Buzz offer better privacy than Facebook?

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With Google already the center of controversy worldwide over how it uses the information it gleans from its search users, red flags were almost certain to be sent up over Google Buzz, announced Tuesday. It's the company's new social platform for sharing bits of Twitter-like communication, and it's built rather cleverly on its existing Gmail platform.

The red flags concern how Google leverages Gmail to create a pre-established social network for Buzz users. Unlike a fresh, new social network that asks incoming users to build their lists of followers from scratch, Buzz starts out by collecting a list of folks who appear to be doing the most communicating with the incoming user via Gmail.

If the new Buzz user simply accepts the default settings, then that list will become "public" information, at least to all the other Buzz users who opt to follow him. And that's the problem, because somebody who simply accepts the defaults may end up broadcasting the list of most frequented Gmail contacts to other Buzz users, perhaps with some inadvertent results.

"The people you are automatically selected to follow are other Gmail users, who may or may not have started using Buzz," a Google spokesperson explained to Betanews. "In order to automatically suggest people you might want to follow, Buzz looks at the contacts you e-mail and chat with the most. It uses the same kinds of signals that Web mail programs typically use to determine which contact should come up first when you start typing an e-mail address in the 'To' line."

As Google's Buzz privacy policy explains, "When you first enter Google Buzz, to make the startup experience easier, we may automatically select people for you to follow based on the people you e-mail and chat with most. Similarly, we may also suggest to others that they automatically follow you. You can review and edit the list of people you follow and block people from following you. Your name, photo, and the list of people you follow and people following you will be displayed on your Google profile, which is publicly searchable on the Web. You may opt out of displaying the list of people following you and who you're following on your profile."

The problem of accepting a relatively open privacy policy by default was brought to the public's attention by Facebook, in its revision of privacy policy last December. Originally advertised to have been a response to users' concerns that Facebook was too open, that network created a default setting that was not only marketed for everyone, but was actually named "Everyone," perhaps to improve its popularity. That default setting shares all information, including the user's contacts, not only with other Facebook members but with folks stumbling upon Facebook profiles in Web searches.

Facebook's explanation and instructions left users baffled about how much information they may or may not be sharing with the rest of the world, and what control they may have over it, if any. Betanews tests on Google Buzz reveal that, although inadvertently sharing other Gmail contacts may be a problem at first, a reasonable user may have far less difficulty taking control of his sharing settings than with Facebook.

In our test, we used a very seldom-used Gmail address. Although there were messages there, no group of message senders appeared more prominently than others. As a result, Buzz did not pull up a list of suggested contacts. It did bring up the photo of this guy from the pre-existing Google profile, which was established in Google Talk several months earlier.

The notice on the initial dialog box reads in small print, "Your profile includes your name, photo, people you follow, and people who follow you." From here, it may not be clear to some users that this profile is very nearly about to broadcast the names of frequent Gmail contacts (never mind for the moment that this guy doesn't have any), if they were to click on Save profile and continue.

The ability for users to not only see those contacts but prevent them from being broadcast to other users, or to the world, does exist -- perhaps not obvious, but it's there. It's the Edit link at the top of the dialog box. When you click that, the dialog box expands to let you add and remove Buzz contacts manually (we found a fellow who appears to be enjoying a cool beverage), as well as disable the broadcasting of the contacts list, in a check box marked Show the lists of people I'm following and people following me on my profile. Twitter users will be familiar with the ability to see one's followers and whom one is following; that's a feature, not an option, with that service.

Can a Buzz member follow someone else privately? "Yes," explains Google's spokesperson, "but only if that user sets their list of followers to private. By design, if you choose to follow someone in Buzz, that person will see your name in his or her profile. Just like you get to choose whether or not to make your list of followers public, it's up to that user to do the same. That said, if the user chooses not to make his list private and you want to remain anonymous, one option is to not follow, but still read, any publicly available posts."

The Buzz privacy policy states that a user's profile is searchable from the Web. That means that if a Google Talk user has set up a Google profile, and that profile is already searchable from the Web, then after joining Buzz, that profile may contain some Gmail contacts. However, assuming that users know how to use this Edit link prior to formally signing up, this may not necessarily be an indicator to others that followed and following members have necessarily shared a plurality of Gmail messages with one another.

Furthermore, the ability for a Google user to make his profile searchable through the Web is turned off by default. If you have a Google profile already, then this link will take you to it. At the bottom of this page, you'll find the Profile URL section, where you'll see the URL of your public profile if it were searchable through the Web. To turn search ability on, you click on the check box beside the URL, then click on Save changes. As the instructions clearly explain, "To help others discover your profile, in some Google services contacts who know your e-mail address will see a link to your profile."

That's only if you turn this feature on. By contrast, the whole point of using Facebook is to develop a public profile page. Thus it is conceivable that knowledgeable users who wish to construct a limited social network may be able to do so with Google Buzz.

Next: Can other Buzz users see what you've mailed?

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