Gmail Controversies: 2010 Isn’t 2004 All Over Again

By  |  Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm

“On the surface, it sounds like a wow idea…Truth be told, however, this is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps…That’s why the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it’s too late.”–Charles Cooper, Cnet

“I think this whole thing could be an electronic noose…The more defined you are, the more definable you are, the more you’re exposed [to possible security problems].”–analyst Roger Kay as quoted in a Washington Post article

“The interplay between the creation of an inalienable right to privacy and the application of this right to the private sector is important. It requires Google to obtain the affirmative consent of individuals before violating their privacy.”–an open letter to the California Attorney General signed by privacy advocates

What do the above three comments have in common? Nope, it’s not that they’re expressing angst over Google Buzz’s privacy issues. They all date from almost six years ago, when Gmail was brand new and plenty of intelligent people were freaked out over the idea of an e-mail service scanning messages for keywords and displaying relevant advertising. As far as I can remember, it was the biggest privacy-related furor Google had encountered until this week.

Today, I don’t know of anybody who’s terrified of Gmail. (Okay, there are probably people who still don’t like the idea, but–this may shock you–they probably solved the problem by deciding not to become Gmail users.)

In retrospect, the original Gmail kerfuffle seems silly, and Google’s response back in 2004–which was to pretty much hunker down and deploy the service without changes–feels like the right one. The company was doing something new and inventive, and it took the world a while to get its head around it.

So can Google draw any lessons from the Mother of All Gmail-Related Controversies as it figures out what to do about Buzz? Yes, but I worry that it might draw the wrong ones. The concern over Gmail and the concern over Buzz’s conversion of e-mail contacts into public lists of who Buzz users are following don’t have much in common with each other. With Buzz, the hubbub has nothing to do with fear of the unknown. It’s just that lots of people consider information about who they converse with via e-mail to be a private matter, and that a company that has access to that info should treat it gingerly.

I think that Google can make some fairly minor (additional) changes to Buzz that would instantly satisfy almost everybody. And I hope it does, rather than trying to ride this out. Because the people who are upset now are fundamentally different from the 2004 alarmists in one important way: They have a good point.


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. drach Says:

    Are you so sure they have a good point? People said the same thing about GMail when it first came out: “they have a good point!!!”.

    Remarkably enough, right now, everyone who has a buzz account is using gmail. They’ve decided that google isn’t usurping their privacy rights. If others are abusing google’s search service to reveal details about these individuals private lives, so be it. But I’m not sure where google exposing the names of the people you’re automatically following is such a bad thing. Twitter does and nobody complains. The solution there is to not use twitter.

    So if you have a problem with the google settings … change em on your account. Make your profile non-public. Anyone with a gmail account that was worried about privacy should have done that a LONG time ago, as I did.

    You can’t ignore the things around you (that it’s not like google hides the list of their services and never pushes it in your face — look at the top of every google page when you’re logged in!) and then complain when progress moves forward around you.

    Log in, examine the options, read the FAQs and help files, check the settings. Then when they do something that’s NOT exposed via a setting, THEN you bitch and moan. Sorry, I’m not apologetic if people put their private lives in the hands of Google and said “make my profile public” and then refused to understand what the implications were.

    Now. I do feel bad for the people who opted out and their data got exposed anyways. But actually, I don’t recall seeing those. I’ve actually seen quite a ton of “+n private profiles” because PEOPLE DID THEIR HOMEWORK and they DID WHAT WAS RIGHT in the first place.

  2. jacobyjd Says:

    Thanks for drawing this comparison. I WANT Buzz to work–I’m not thrilled about the privacy issues, but part of me says ‘neat!’ when I see all the tie-ins…then again, I’m not having an affair, nor do I have anything in my Gmail acct that could do any damage. I do understand how it could be troublesome for some though.

    Mainly, what I see in Buzz is the potential for a light version of what I actually use FB for–minus all the irritating fluff. Here’s hoping they can quell the outrage and wind up with an excellent, useful feature in the end.

  3. Tech Says:

    Google needs to separate buzz into a different application.

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