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A Dangerous Buzz, and Opt-In Isn’t Just for Email

Google is great at generating buzz, and they’ve done it again with their new social vitality tool, appropriately named Google Buzz.

Buzz takes all of your Gmail contacts (and presumably other connections from elsewhere within the Googleplex), and makes them all your “friends” by default; it then shares your activity from Google Reader, YouTube, and other tools with all of them, and vice versa. They can see who your friends are, and you can see who theirs are. It’s a quick & impressive way to make a whole new social network out of the original social networking tool: email.

Only one problem: all of those connections, and all of that public information, happens by default. You do get to choose whether or not to activate Buzz, but apparently it’s activated either way—and if you say no, you won’t have access to the nearly-hidden privacy controls.

These may seem like small issues: Facebook already tells the world who you’re friends with, and Twitter updates are public by default. But with both of those, you choose to sign up and you know what you’re getting (until it changes.) Buzz is different: you signed up for Gmail, and suddenly this other thing happened too. Suddenly, things you thought were private are public. It’s tantamount to spyware.

This is all of particular concern to someone like the author of the Fugitivus blog, who writes anonymously about her life—including some truly disturbing experiences, being raised in an abusive family and then married to an abusive husband. Everyone should have the right to make their own privacy choices; for her, privacy is absolutely required. Her well-being, perhaps even her life depends on it.

When Google Buzz showed up, it revealed her activity to all of her most common correspondents—which includes her ex-husband. Things she had thought she was only sharing with her boyfriend and her mother, that she thought she had control over, were now automatically shown to someone she has very good reason to trust no further than her inbox. See the problem here?

We’ve talked for years about the “opt-in” paradigm for email: companies and organizations should not send you advertisements unless you’ve asked for them—even if they believe you’ll be interested. Similarly, companies and organizations should not be sharing your information with others—even if they believe you know the person—without asking first.

Shame on Google for not considering the choice aspect of privacy before launching Buzz. You know better.

This article was originally published by the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email.

By J.D. Falk, Internet Standards and Governance

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