mercredi 28 avril 2010

Google Buzz: Users' Opt-Out Privacy Backlash Explained

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Google Buzz is a micro-blogging-shaped social network integrated in Google's Gmail inboxes. In the minute Buzz launched, the 9th of February 2010, a lot of Gmail users stood up against it. Google Buzz offers users to share short-messages that may contain pictures, videos, links, location, all of which can be directly imported from Picasa, Google Reader, Flickr, Twitter, Blogger, Youtube. When Buzz launched, all Gmail users were automatically assigned a Buzz account.

Right off the bat, Google's vision of the social Web provoked a backlash around the issue of personal data. When it started, Google Buzz decided that your public network contacts (following-followers) would be your private Gtalk contacts, without even consulting the opinion of its users: An automatic friend-matching algorithm took care of connecting you to a suggested network, with a focus on users' email and instant chat history. By default, your lists of following-followers were also shared publicly with the world-wide Web. Many angry users stood up to against this privacy violation issue, with complaints about their public contact lists, and the lack of a "block" feature.

To manage the crisis, Google responded swiftly to their users' complaints. February 11th, on the Gmail blog, Gmail's Product Manager Todd Jackson announced that there was an option to create a more protected Buzz profile, enabling users to control how their contacts get displayed. Feedbacks backfired, arguing that this control feature was very hard to find. Moreover, Todd Jackson announced that its company had clarified its TOS, and that Gmail users had been given access to many more privacy features. For example, it is now possible to block anyone that follows you, something that was formerly not possible: Users could only block Buzz users with a public profile.

A major update followed, the 13th of February. Todd Jackson wrote that major modifications were about to roll-out over the next few days: The feature that would automatically connect you to your email contacts would be turned off (auto-following) and would be replaced with suggestions (auto-suggest model), so that Buzz users gain full control over their network contacts and the information they share online. In addition to this, Buzz unplugged its hoses from Picasa and Google Reader. Another worth-mentioning change was the addition of a Gmail feature that would allow persons concerned about their privacy to hide Buzz from Gmail and/or disable it completely.

As Google was fighting hard to handle the backlash, on February the 17th, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit against the Mountain View-based company to the Federal Trade Commission. The EPIC asked that Google integrates a complete opt-in sign-up procedure to Google Buzz, that it stops to use users' private information to feed its social network, , and that it enables users to have full control have their data sharing activities. He way Google Buzz was launched goes against the federal law for the protection of consumers, hence the request from the EPIC to have Google step back and ask for permissions from its users to build a mega-social network based on their private communications.

On April 7th, in a blog post, Todd Jackson confirmed the installation of the promised privacy settings, and reiterated Google's will to reduce the uncontrolled spread of private data. He encouraged new and existing users to pay a close attention to their privacy settings before starting to use the service, and to limit the flow of information that will run through one's Buzz account. A any point, a Buzz users can switch its privacy settings and throw network connections in and out of its sharing activities.

Despite the major privacy policies overhaul on Gmail's end, the way Google imposed its new social network to its users still follows the buzz on Google Buzz. On April 20th, in Washington, the International Association of Privacy Professionals Summit gathered private data protection representatives from all over the World. Privacy commissioners from 10 countries wrote an open letter to Google that details the reasons behind their concerns towards Google's privacy issues, arguing that the launch of Google Buzz was a disgrace to its users in terms of protecting its users' private lives. The commissioners also reminded that thise is not the first we spot Google in such an awkward situation regarding its users' privacy.

According to the same commissioners, automatically attributing a network of friends to a user based on this user's personal communications goes against the fundamental principal that states that anyone should have control over their personal information. Gmail users immediately identified a threat towards the security of their private data. Many users were outraged by Google's hold-up on their personal info. They admitted that Google reacted swiftly o make up for this big mistake.

Despite Google's bluffing responsiveness to the crisis, the commissioners kept on arguing their case, expressing serious concerns towards the idea that a product with so much impact on its consumers' privacy had been launched in the first place. The pleading found it unacceptable that a product sharing personal information publicly was launched, without the users' consent, and with the intention to fix problems post-launch instead of tuning the machine in a pre-launch phase. The protection of privacy should not be jeopardized by the overzealous social and mobile technology race.

The EPIC asked Google to limit the collection of private data to a bear minimum, to maximize the visibility of privacy settings, to clarify how personal data flows through Google Buzz' veins, to define default privacy settings that preserve users' right to privacy, to provide crystal-clear processes to get users' sharing consent, and to guarantee a simple way to disable Buzz at any point in time.

Just like Facebook, Google Buzz is in a never-ending fight against outraged users complaining about the way their privacy is being exposed. For the most part, complaints focus on the fact that privacy settings are easily accessible, and users just wish that Buzz would work with an opt-in system. In the field of email marketing, when a user actively opts-in, this user accept the intrusion of a marketer in his/her inbox: The consent is explicit. On the other end, the opt-out method, where a service provider assumes that its users implicitly consent to everything, kind of like the way Buzz or Facebook does, without making the path to secure privacy clear and obvious, the opt-out method is bound to create backlashes.

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