Google is not accustomed to being mistrusted by users and flogged by the tech press, but that’s exactly what’s happened to the search engine giant in recent weeks since the release of its new Google Buzz social media product.
Companies like Microsoft, and to a lesser extent Apple, are used to releasing new products and seeing them publicly attacked and belittled. Those two companies are typically patient enough to take feedback, integrate it into the product cycle, and then wait for users to get on board.
Google, on the other hand, has been something of a golden child in the tech world in the past decade. Its search engine has become the default home page of the Internet, and the company’s focus on engineering over profits has endeared it to users around the world.
However, as I suggested in my article How Google became the George Washington of the Internet, Google’s joy ride with users could be coming to end. In fact, it may have officially happened with the introduction of Google Buzz. We could look back at this product launch as the turning point of Google losing its innocence.
So, what’s the big deal about Buzz? Here are the two reasons why Google’s actions with Buzz have raised so many eyebrows and confirmed some of our darkest fears about Google.
1. They’d use our data in ways we didn’t authorize
Google is sitting on the largest collection of personal information on the planet (and very likely, the largest in the history of the planet). Google knows far more about you than the government does, for example. As a result, users tacitly trust Google to only use their information in ways they explicitly need for accessing Google services such as search and email.
When Google Buzz first launched, it surprised users by turning their contacts that they emailed most often in Gmail into Google Buzz friends. By default, this list of friends was exposed to the world through the person’s Google Profile and these automatic friends were also treated to access to the person’s Google Reader, exposing the stuff they were reading.
These kinds of surprises were what sent a lot of people (including yours truly) looking for ways to turn off Google Buzz within a few hours of it going live.
2. They’d eventually get careless about privacy procedures
In creating the automatic friends list in Buzz, Google was attempting to streamline the process of setting up a new social media site. The product was trying to be helpful and keep users from needing to look up and add their friends on yet another social network.
That was a laudable goal, but it’s shocking that no one at Google sensed the massive privacy implications of this move since it was tied into a public-facing profile. For many people, that Google account tied to Gmail and other private services was not one that they wanted to expose out in the wild. It was simply too closely connected to valuable data.
Google claimed to have tested Buzz internally leading up to the launch, so it’s surprising that no one picked up on the contact issue and that the feature that went live. Of course, it got rolled back by Google programmers after an international outcry from users.
Beyond the bit about anonymizing data, Google has never divulged many details about its internal policies for protecting user privacy. Google’s promise to users has always been something like: “Trust us. We’ll always keep the needs of users as our top priority.”
However, in the process of trying to make users the top priority and create a better user experience, Google was extremely careless about the overall privacy implications of Buzz. That naturally makes me wonder how serious they are about privacy in general and it makes me question the policies and procedures Google has in place to protect privacy.
As part of the Google Buzz announcement the company stated that an enterprise version of Buzz would be available later this year. If Google can’t win over consumers and techies to Wave, then it’s very unlikely to win over the much more security-conscious enterprise.