The overkill response to Google Buzz

In today's viral, social media-driven world, it never seems to take long for things to get ugly. This is especially true for Google Buzz, which became a lightning rod for privacy-related criticisms almost as soon as it went live last week.

My advice to the critics: Don't get your panties in a knot.

Google's public privacy debacle

I'm not saying that Buzz didn't come out of the box with an embarrassingly long list of issues. It did, and Google should fix them pronto. And Google users everywhere should hold the company accountable for doing precisely that.

I'm also not saying that such criticisms aren't deserved. Whenever any Web service is flawed to the point that everyday use can compromise the integrity of our personal information, we can't simply let it slide. As originally delivered, Buzz was, shall we say, problematic. Its auto-follow feature created a list of contacts from users' Gmail accounts and automatically followed them. Then, it "helpfully" made this list of most frequently used contacts public, so any stranger with a Gmail account could then see who they'd been corresponding with.

Carmi Levy Wide Angle Zoom (v.2)Buzz's initial profile setup was also a privacy minefield. At first blush, the profile requirement wasn't such a major issue, since most social networking tools ask for at least some personal data. It helps add value to the user experience by, for example, making it easier to localize search or quickly build a list of contacts.

Unfortunately, the devil of Google's profile setup methodology lurked in the details. While users of most other online services could expect this private, personally-identifiable information to be kept relatively private, they had no such protection in Buzz. Google by default made the profile public and forced users who wanted it kept hidden to edit their profile manually.

Changes are welcome but insufficient

We all know how this works in the real world: Tech-savvy early adopters will typically explore the full feature set and tweak the settings to their heart's desire. The other 95% of the population would never even know there were additional settings to set -- and they'd be exposed without even knowing it. It's a scary place to be, and Facebook, for one, has been there too many times to count. As more services move online and become more dependent on socially aware architecture, it'll only get worse.

To its credit, Google has responded quickly to the criticism. Specifically, it's rolled out two separate waves of changes to the service. The ability to block those who follow you and those you follow from your public profile is now a much more prominent and linear component of the setup and account management process. Blocking followers is also more visible, and you can do it before they actually start following you. Previously, you had to wait until someone started following you before you could set up a block, which was another point of exposure. More broadly, Google is making it more obvious to users what's public, what isn't, and how they can change things to suit their personal comfort level.

Although the controversial auto-follow feature has now been replaced with one that merely suggests whom you may want to follow, Buzz continues to make new users' follow lists public until they specifically choose otherwise. While this fits Google's release-first, tweak-later-and-iteratively Web app development methodology, it reinforces the never-ending struggle between usability and privacy, and how Web services vendors don't always strike an optimal balance. Since this looks like the first social networking tool in Google's inventory that'll actually stick around, it's a conversation we'll likely be having for a while.

We still need to be nice

As we discuss the pros and cons of Buzz, we'll want to keep in mind the tone with which these conversations are held. While the feedback is mostly deserved (Google missed the memo on privacy, and wrongly assumed that none of this mattered to its users), the nasty barbs being tossed in Google's direction are largely uncalled for.

Maybe my rampant Canadianism is showing through, but when the blogs and Twitter feeds light up with Google-is-evil invective that would make my mom blush, I can't help but think that we all need to step back and put it in a little perspective:

  • No one forces you to use Buzz. This is all volunteer. If you don't like the feature set, use something else. Or nothing at all. If the vendor can't or won't solve the critical issues at the root of the firestorm, you can easily opt out. (At least in Buzz's case now, you can opt out from the Buzz tab in Gmail, which wasn't there at first.)
  • It's free. I always laugh when users assume vendors owe them something when a given service doesn't work as intended. It could be loose with privacy (Facebook or Google), unavailable (Twitter), or feature-deficient (every other service known to humankind) and thousands of people will cry foul as if they've been fundamentally wronged. They haven't. They've invested nothing beyond their own time to use these services, so when they glitch out they should shrug their shoulders and move on. If they've decided to base their careers and lives on these free services, I humbly suggest they consider an upgrade to a premium account, which adds some vendor accountability and gives folks a leg to stand on when they feel they aren't getting their money's worth.
  • Responsibility for privacy rests with you. Relying on vendors to secure our privacy is like trusting used car dealers to do everything in their power to get us the best deal. That's our job, not theirs. So if their tools for managing privacy are deficient, it's up to us to navigate them and make them work for us -- and, yes, complain. We may grumble at the inconvenience, and we may jump to competitors who make it easier for us. But in the end no one else is going to captain this ship, so stop complaining if things get rough along the way.

I have no doubt the conversation will ultimately make Buzz a better product. It is, after all, how Web services evolve today. But it's time we stopped blaming vendors like Google for being evil (They're not. A bit disconnected, perhaps, but not evil), and realized the accountability for online privacy rests with us and not them.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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