Eryan Cobham

Thinker-tinker. Web Developer.

Blind Spot

Google released a new project into the wild a couple of days ago, it’s called Google Buzz and in the announcement, they describe it as “ a new way to start conversations about the things you find interesting,” and that’s essentially what it is. You can write a buzz about whatever is on your mind and your friends and family and whoever you’re connected to can see it and comment on it. There’s plenty of talk about them trying to compete with Twitter and Facebook, but that’s not really my point here. It’s an interesting service, but the problem with it is that the default setting of all of these updates and comments is to be Public. This has some potentially scary privacy implications that make it very problematic, since at some point it’s going to be automatically enabled in every gmail account. Google has tried to address some of those concerns, but I have my doubts about whether they’ll succeed.

I’m not really surprised that Google would make a mistake like this, because it seems like every tech company has a blind spot. That blind spot usually relates to anything that would interfere with the way they make the majority of their money. Microsoft and Apple don’t seem to get “cloud computing,” because they make their money selling desktop computers and electronic devices where everything you need is in your hand. A bunch of other companies don’t seem to understand good design, because they make their money selling cheap knockoffs that only compete on price, so paying to design something would cut into those razor-thin margins. But Google, they don’t seem to understand anything that deals with interacting with other people, especially not privacy. That’s because they make their money using computers running algorithms that index information and sell ads whenever you search for that particular piece of information you need.

The privacy problems with Buzz actually start with a system that it’s dependent on, Google Contacts. Google tried to unify the contact managers on several different products, like Gmail and Google Reader into one central place to manage your contacts. That was a good idea, but the problem was that they made the decision to add people to your address book and show them on your IM program just based on how often you email them. Unfortunately they chose not to make a distinction between people you want to email and people you have to email. So, if you use google chat then people that you email regularly, but aren’t really friends of yours, start IMing you. There are plenty of people I take pictures of when I go to weddings or other events, and I label their faces in Picasa Web Albums so that I can remember their names in the future, but that doesn’t mean I want them listed as a contact. And if you take a look through your contacts, all of a sudden a lot of names start appearing that you don’t recognize because you only emailed them once when replying to a joke your friend cc’d you on. In the case of your contact list you can’t even change that setting, you just have to deal with the pollution of your contact list.

Here’s a general rule for Google: rightly or wrongly, people generally think of the emails in their inbox as private. So you should not put new functionality that is, by default, public in that same inbox. People get confused about how to log into facebook, so how exactly do you think they’re going to be able to tell the difference between an email to their friend and a comment that gets immediately indexed and is available in search results around the world? Answer: they won’t be able to tell the difference, and once they realize that their coworkers and family and 5 billion other people can read that offensive joke they just made they’ll be pretty pissed, and they’ll be pissed at Google.

With Google already starting to have problems in Europe because of privacy concerns, they are going to have to start taking these issues seriously. But that sort of direction has to come from the top of the organization, so it doesn’t help much when your CEO says dumb things like, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” It shows a fundamental lack of concern for these issues, and it might finally be enough to make me start reconsidering some of their services.

Update 2/15/09: Looks like they made a few more changes because of the response they were getting. It’ll likely be enough to get people to relax, but I still think these problems will pop up for them again and again.