Home Google Shutters Service That Cost it 20 Years of Privacy Audits

Google Shutters Service That Cost it 20 Years of Privacy Audits

Google announced today the closure of a number of services it’s offered for years, including the much-maligned social network Buzz. Buzz wasn’t just forgotten, though. It wasn’t just a pre-cursor to Google Plus. It wasn’t just rolled out awkwardly in February, 2010.

It was, according to the US Federal Trade Commission, an egregious enough violation of consumer privacy that all of Google will now be subject to independent privacy audits for the next 20 years. Many people still don’t believe that Buzz violated anyone’s privacy at all. I think it’s important, as Buzz fades into the sunset of history, that such opinions be reconsidered and Buzz’s wrongdoing be taken seriously. Lest it be repeated and so that social software can be built effectively in the future.

The big issue with Buzz was that it by default showed all of your contacts a list of everyone else you were connected with. Those contacts weren’t fresh and new, either – they were based on the frequency of your Gmail email conversations with people. Essentially, Buzz told everyone you emailed with frequently the identity of everyone else you emailed with frequently. Not good.

That was exemplified best by a pseudonymous woman with a blog who explained that her sexually abusive stalking ex-husband, who she used to email with a lot, was now shown for the first time the names of her new boyfriend and her employer, who she emails with a lot today.

Within a week, after a big uproar, Google implemented a new interface element that made it clear how to opt-out of this automatic sharing of information between your contacts. It was a very serious matter, complicated by the fact that the ins and outs of social networking technology and privacy policies are not intuitive to anyone. The fact that Google’s services are free and freely used also complicated peoples’ understanding of the situation – though it’s hard to argue that users have given consent to a policy when that policy changes without warning. (E.g. first contacts don’t see each other’s names and then they do.)

Then Google CEO Eric Schmidt, as well as many other people throughout the technology industry, have said that Buzz’s contact exposure did not constitute an actual privacy violation – only an appearance of privacy violation. They have argued that social networking is new enough that non-technical end users are sometimes wrongly confused and scared by it.

The Buzz contact exposure was not an imagined offense, though. It was real technology and real policy with real consequences for real people. Google was sued for it and settled out of court for a few million dollars.

More important though was the application of a penalty by the US Federal Trade Commission. The FTC ruled that because of Buzz, Google will now be subject to independent privacy audits, every two years, for the next twenty years.

Some people said that sounded too extreme. Twenty years is certainly a very long time for a technology company.

That’s not really an important debate to have, though. What’s most important is that people in the technology industry recognize that forced disclosure of personal information is much more serious for some people than it is for others. People who are at risk ought still be able to use the internet, and not be effectively prevented from doing so because of rules created by more privileged people, who face far less risk of violence and danger if their information is exposed.

Google Buzz was in many ways a great idea. It was really interesting technology and integration with real-life contacts as defined by email frequency was a very interesting idea. It wasn’t well executed at all though, it was built without sensitivity for peoples’ real needs for privacy. Google Plus has been built in a way that puts different privacy needs at the center of the experience.

But as Google Buzz is shut down, the technology industry should take advantage of this opportunity to learn from it. The lesson of Google Buzz is that real peoples’ lives are complicated and even when they want to use technology to share and communicate, it’s never simple. Their concerns aren’t imagined either, they aren’t a bump in the road that has to be passed to get to the future, rather they are the social part of social software. Taking those social needs seriously is essential if social software is to truly change the world for the better and if that change is to be enjoyed by all.

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