Does the Social Web need a Googopoly?

Posted by Rebecca Schild at Mar 02, 2010 10:35 AM |
While the utility of the new social tool Buzz is still under question, the bold move into social space taken last week by the Google Buzz team has Gmail users questioning privacy implications of the new feature. In this post, I posit that Buzz highlights two privacy challenges of the social web. First, the application has sidestepped the consensual and contextual qualities desirable of social spaces. Secondly, Google’s move highlights the increasingly competitive and convergent nature of the social media landscape.

Last week, and for many a surprise, Google launched its new social networking platform, Buzz.  The new service is Google’s effort to amplify the “social nature” of their services by integrating them under one platform, and adding some extra social utility.   The social application runs from the Gmail interface, but also links other Google accounts a user may have, including albums on Picasa, and Google Reader.   The service also allows for the sharing from external sources, such as photos on Flickr, and videos from YouTube.  The service also allows users to post, like, or dislike the status updates of others which may be publicly searchable if the user opts.  Before a Gmail user may fully participate in Google Buzz service, a unique Google Personal Profile must be created. 

User Consent

Much of the buzz surrounding the new social networking service last week wasn’t paying much lip service to the new application.  Instead, an uproar of privacy concerns continued to dominate the Buzz scene, with many critics quickly labeling Buzz a “privacy nightmare”.  A formal complaint has been already filed with the US Federal Trade Commission in response to Google’s new privacy violating service.   A second-year Harvard Law student has also filed a class-action suit against the company for its privacy malpractices. 

Much of the privacy talk thus far has focused on issues of consent, or lack thereof, in this case.  Upon Buzz’s launch, Gmail users were automatically subscribed as “opting in” for the service.  Google has used the private address books of millions of Gmail accounts to build social networks from the contacts users email and chat with most.  To entice users into using the service, Gmail users were set to auto-follow all of their contacts, and in turn, to be followed by them, too.  Furthermore, all new Buzz users had been set to automatically share all public Picasa albums and Google Reader items with their new social graph.  It is argued that social network services should be opt-in, rather than opt-out, and that Buzz has violated the consensual nature of the social web. 

Illuminating the complications of building a social graph from ones inbox is the story of an Australian women, who remains anonymous.  As she claims, most of the emails currently received through her Gmail account, are those from her abusive ex-boyfriend.  Due to Google’s assumption that Gmail users would like to be “auto-followed” by their Gmail contacts (mirroring Twitters friendship protocol), items shared between herself and new boyfriend through her Google reader account had become public to her broader social graph, including her ex-boyfriend and his harassing friends.

In a blog response directed to Google’s Buzz team, the woman scornfully wrote- “F*ck you, Google. My privacy concerns are not trite. 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. A few days is how long I expect it will take before you either knock this shit off, or I delete every Google account I have ever had and use Bing out of f*cking spite”.  As this case demonstrates, the people we mail most often may not be our closest friends.   As email has replaced the telephone for many as the dominate mode of communication--some contacts may be friends, however, many others may not be.  

In response to the uproar, tweaks to Buzz’s privacy features have since been made.  Todd Jackson, Buzz’s product manager, has also posted a public apology to the official Gmail Blog late last week for not “getting everything quite right”.  The service will now assume the more user-centric “auto-suggest” model, allowing users to selectively choose the contacts they wish to follow, and will also no longer auto-link Picasa and Reader content.  However, as the EPIC’s complaint notes, many are still unsatisfied with the opt-out nature of the service, arguing that users should be able to opt-into the service if they so choose, rather than having to delist themselves for a service they didn’t necessarily sign up.  Ethical quandaries also still loom over Google’s misuse of the users’ private contact lists to jumpstart their new service. 

Contextual Integrity

The attacks on personal privacy resulting from Google’s model are vast.  As the case of the Australian woman illuminates, the concept of the “online friend” has completely taken out of context with Buzz’s initial auto-follow model.  Many of the contacts we make on a daily basis need not be made public through the Google profile.  For most, this Buzz’s privacy breach may be benign or annoying at most. However, those who are engaged in sensitive social or political relationships via their Gmail chat or email accounts, the revelation of common contact could have been potentially damaging for many.  A reporter from CNET has cleverly labeled Buzz’ as a “socially awkward networking”, as bringing diverse contacts under one umbrella doesn’t exactly make the most social sense. In response, Gmail users are required to sort through and filter their Buzz followers according, or choose to disable the service all together.

Besides questions of who is stalking whom, the assumptive and public nature of Google’s  new move has cast a shadow of doubt among Gmail users regarding the ability of Google to maintain the privacy and contextual integrity of the Gmail account.  Should one account be the place to socialize, and  “do business”?  Gmail is, and should remain, an email service.  However, Buzz takes the email experience into new and questionable grounds.  Do Gmail users feel entirely comfortable having their personal email, social graph, and chat functions all coming under the auspices of one platform?   Many users felt they had been lured into using a social networking service that they didn’t sign up for in the first place.   

Social Media Competition

In addition to Google’s attempt to integrate their various service offerings, Buzz is seen as an obvious attempt to bolster competitiveness in the social media market.  In 2004, Google released Orkut. While the service has become big in countries such as Brazil and India, it has been overshadowed by sites such as Facebook in other jurisdictions, and has not been able to prove itself as a mainstream space for networking.  In the past year, Google had also launched Google Wave, a tool that mixes e-mail, with instant messaging and the ability for several people to collaborate on documents.  However, the application failed to completely win over audiences, and was considered one of the top failures of 2009

With Google unable to effectively saturate the social media ecosystem, Buzz is an attempt to compete with the searchable and real time experiences provided by social media giants, Facebook and Twitter.  Increased competition within the social media market could be a positive development for privacy, as social media companies could arguably be compete on their ability to provide users with preferable privacy architectures.  To the contrary, however, such competition has thus far had negative ramifications for user privacy, as the recent Buzz and Facebook moves illustrates.  Facebook’s loosened privacy settings were a competitive knee-jerk to Twitters searchable and real time experience.  Through a Twitter search, individuals can come to know what people are saying about a certain topic, event, or product, and as a result, the service has received a great deal attention from users, and non-users such as advertisers, alike.   

In an attempt to one-up, their competition, the “Twitterization” of Facebook followed in two distinct stages.  First was with the implementation of the Facebook News Feed, which gave users a real time account of actions their friends on the site.  Many argued that this feature invaded user privacy.  However, it was argued by Facebook that they only were making available information that was already accessible through individual profile pages.  The News Feed, as it happens, effectively took user information and actions on the site out of original context by streaming this information live for others easy viewing.  Information users once had to rummage for had become accessible in real time on the homepage of the service. 

Secondly, Facebooks’ recent privacy scandal was a step towards making profile information more searchable and accessible to third parties, as is most often the case with the more public feeds on Twitter.  As one commentator notes,   “Facebook used to be very private but private is not great for search, to have great search you need all of the data to be publicly available as it mostly is on Twitter. Facebook have not quite nailed real time search yet but they are getting there and it will soon be a great way of examining sentiment across different demographics”.  As a result, information on Facebook, such as name, profile picture, friends list, location and fan pages have become open access information.  In addition, users on Facebook have been subjected to new privacy regime without notice, leaving their profile pages generally more open, and searchable through Google.    

Converging the Online Self

The impact Buzz alone can make on the social media landscape remains questionable (Gmail heralds only 140 million accounts, which is a deficient cry from Facebooks’ 400+ million dedicated users).  However, despite Googles’ in/ability to become claim hegemony over the social web landscape, the abuse of private information to launch a new service has raised serious debate over the privacy and the future of social networking.  The Buzz service marks more than yet another new social networking service that brushes aside the privacy of users.  As user control and privacy becomes an increasingly peripheral concern, Google’s shift toward privacy decontrol also signifies a worrisome supply-side shift towards the “convergence” of online identity.

Within this new dominant paradigm, privacy concerns are often interpreted as antithetical to competitiveness in the social media marketplace.  Instead of an imagined ecosystem based on user control and privacy preference, it can now be inferred that the competiveness of social networking services will continue to disrupt the delicate balance between the public and private online. Regardless that greater visibility and searchability of the social profile may not be in the public interest, Google’s recent move works to reinforcement of the new status quo of “openness”.  Furthermore, it is questionable as to how concentrated and integrated a user may want their online activities to become.  A critical discourse of online privacy must, therefore, take into account the ways in which the social web has renders the user increasingly transparent through networks of networking services. 

Google’s Buzz illustrates this point quite well.   Initially, Gmail was a straightforward email service.  Next, the AdWords advertising service and Gmail chat had become integrated into the Gmail experience.  Because Google was using the confidential emails of its Gmail users, privacy concerns began to mount upon the launch of the the AdWords service.  However, turmoil surrounding AdWords died down, notably as Google continues to reassert that is is bots, not humans, that are scanning the emails in order to provide the AdWords service.  Next, there gradually occurred a convergence of Google services under the single social profile, or “email address”.  A single Gmail account potentially includes use of with Google reader, calendar, chat, groups and an Orkut account.  In terms of behavioral targeted advertising, Google has recently announced that they will be providing personalized search results even to users who have not signed up for Google services.  This will be done through the placement a cookie on all machines to provide targeted advertising seamlessly through each Google search and browsing session.    

While many argue that the collection of non-personally identifiable information poses no privacy harm, this assumption needs reassessment.  As Google comes to offer us more, they also come to learn more, and Buzz signifies this trend towards a Googopolized social web.  To add another layer of complexity to Googles hegemony, users of the Buzz service are also required to create a “Google Profile”, which is searchable online and displays real time status updates, comments, and connections from other social network services, such as Facebook and Twitter.  As Google recently launched the beta version of the new Social Search, Buzz was just the service required to increase the relevance to the new service by encouraging Gmail users to publish even more personal information.  The creation of a personal Google profile, which is indexed and searchable, raises many concerns about privacy and identity, and doubts are continually raised over how much Google should come to know about us.

While Google’s services have arguably made the online social experience more seamless and tailored, it is questionable as to how relevant, or even desirable, such a shift may be.  At present, it may appear that Google is wearing far too many hats, and users should be wary of placing all eggs into one basket.      As the launch of Buzz has shown us, user consent and the contextual integrity of private personal information can be compromised when a diverse number of online services are integrated and given a social spin.    When competition among social web providers drives users to lose control of the private information which is inherently theirs, critical questions surrounding competition, convergence and privacy require critical exploration.