New York Times
Critics Say Google Invades Privacy With New Service
By MIGUEL HELFT
Published: February 12, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO — When Google introduced Buzz — its answer to Facebook and Twitter — it hoped to get the service off to a fast start. New users of Buzz, which was added to Gmail on Tuesday, found themselves with a ready-made network of friends automatically selected by the company based on the people that each user communicated with most frequently through Google’s e-mail and chat services.
But what Google viewed as an obvious shortcut stirred up a beehive of angry critics. Many users bristled at what they considered an invasion of privacy, and they faulted the company for failing to ask permission before sharing a person’s Buzz contacts with a broad audience. For the last three days, Google has faced a firestorm of criticism on blogs and Web sites, and it has already been forced to alter some features of the service.
E-mail, it turns out, can hold many secrets, from the names of personal physicians and illicit lovers to the identities of whistle-blowers and antigovernment activists. And Google, so recently a hero to many people for threatening to leave China after hacking attempts against the Gmail accounts of human rights activists, now finds itself being pilloried as a clumsy violator of privacy.
As Evgeny Morozov wrote in a blog post for Foreign Policy, “If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geek squads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government.”
Mr. Morozov is a researcher on the impact of the Internet on totalitarian regimes at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University under a fellowship financed by Yahoo. In an interview, he said the flap over Buzz “definitely undermines Google’s credibility when it talks about freedom of expression.”
In an e-mail message, Todd Jackson, product manager for Gmail and Google Buzz, said, “Google remains completely committed to freedom of expression and to privacy, and we have a strong track record of protecting both.”
Mr. Jackson defended the setup of the Buzz service. He said that Buzz came with a built-in circle of contacts to provide a better experience to users and that many liked that feature. He said that it was very easy for users to edit who they were following on the service and who could follow them. He also said that anyone could hide their list of Buzz contacts with a single click.
After numerous bloggers complained that the privacy controls were difficult to find and adjust, Google agreed to make changes. In a blog post Thursday night, Mr. Jackson wrote that the company had made it easier for people to hide their Buzz contacts and block followers whose identity was unknown.
“It is still early, and we have a long list of improvements on the way,” Mr. Jackson wrote. “We look forward to hearing more suggestions and will continue to improve the Buzz experience with user transparency and control top of mind.”
Mr. Jackson said Buzz had proved popular, with tens of millions of people trying it in the last two days.
But some critics said that Google’s decision to use e-mail and chat correspondence as the basis of a social network was fundamentally misguided. While it is common for social networks to make public a person’s list of friends and followers, those lists are not typically created from e-mail conversations.
“People thought what they had was an address book for an e-mail program, and Google decided to turn that into a friends list for a new social network,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group in Washington. “E-mail is one of the few things that people understand to be private.”
Mr. Rotenberg said that his organization planned to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming that the Google’s use of e-mail conversations to build a social network was unfair and deceptive.
In an expletive-laden article that was widely cited on the Web, a blogger who writes about issues related to violence against women complained that Google had made her fearful. She said that she had unexpectedly discovered a list of people, which may have included her abusive ex-husband or people who sent hostile comments to her blog, following her and her comments on Google Reader, a service for reading blogs and automated news feeds.
“My privacy concerns are not trite,” wrote the blogger, who uses the pseudonym Harriet Jacobs. “They are linked to my actual physical safety, and I will now have to spend the next few days maintaining that safety by continually knocking down followers as they pop up.”
In a further effort to contain the fallout, Google reached out to her and made changes to enhance the privacy of shared comments on Google Reader.
Some privacy experts said that Google had made matters worse by making it difficult for people to hide their lists of Buzz contacts after they realized that those lists had been made public. Some users assumed that they could simply turn off the Buzz service, but that proved inadequate.
“You want to have a simple rollback mechanism, so once things are not what you expected them to be, you can get out quickly and not have to play a game of Whack-a-Mole,” said Deirdre Mulligan, a privacy expert and assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
Google said it was planning to address that issue soon.
Google is known for releasing new products before they are fully ready and then improving them over time. But its decision to do so with Buzz, coupled with its introduction to all 176 million Gmail users by default, appears to have backfired.
“It was a terrible mistake,” said Danny Sullivan, a specialist on Google and editor of SearchEngineLand, an industry blog. “I don’t think people expected that Google would show the world who you are connected with. And if there was a way to opt out, it was really easy to miss.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified the name of the blog Evgeny Morozov wrote a post for. It is Foreign Policy, not Foreign Affairs.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2010, on page B1 of the New York edition.