Google Buzz, a new social networking site, was launched last week. Originally, it was an opt-out service, which meant users of Gmail were automatically signed up and their most frequent email contacts were automatically added as friends. These contacts were automatically granted access to Readers – including any comments – and Picasa photo albums. Furthermore, Buzz revealed the real names of many people using pseudonyms in email contact.
This caused a huge outcry. People were not pleased with having their information exposed to the world. While some people were simply annoyed their contacts found out about the embarrassing blogs they subscribe to, others faced huge risks by having their information exposed.
Many of those outraged were journalists who wanted to protect their sources and contacts. Protecting the confidentiality of sources is an important part of journalism and something journalists in Canada are fighting to protect at the Supreme Court.
Others faced a very real threat to their safety, especially people who are trying to keep their location and other information private from abusive ex-partners. Someone may have their abuser as an email contact, but that does not mean they want to share personal information with them.
These are not small concerns. One of the LRC sites which has seen a large growth in visitors in the past six months is VIOLET: Law & Abused Women. One third of all homicides in Alberta are related to domestic violence and one of the most dangerous times for someone in an abusive relationship is when they leave. Email contact can present a safer way of communicating with an abuser, but not if your information is exposed.
To its credit, Google has responded to the criticisms and taken steps to improve Buzz’s privacy. However, it may be too little, too late. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt may claim “nobody was harmed” by having their contacts, blog subscriptions, and photos made available to the world, but many people disagree.
Here in Canada, Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart released a statement asking Google to explain how it has addressed privacy concerns since its launch.
“We have seen a storm of protest and outrage over alleged privacy violations and my Office also has questions about how Google Buzz has met the requirements of privacy law in Canada,” Commissioner Stoddart said. She also chastised Google for not consulting with her office before launching Buzz, “My Office has a variety of resources available to help companies build privacy into their products and services. When companies consult with us at the development stage, they can avoid the problems we’ve seen in recent days.”
In my last post on privacy issues and social networking, I wondered if people wanted to protect their privacy on the Internet, or if social networking sites were changing the way people feel about it. Based on the reaction to Google’s recent foray in to social networking, I’d say privacy is something people want – and in some cases need – to protect.