In a recent post, I wondered whether it’s possible to opt out of social networking given that your friends might be entering your email address into Facebook’s database without your knowledge.

Turns out this was timely, because less than a week after that post, Google released Buzz.

Google Buzz, as I’m sure you know by now, had a huge privacy flaw in it: it automatically, for all GMail users, created a social graph out of the user’s most-often-emailed people. And then it made that graph public on the user’s Google profile page.

Google’s defense was that that the graph only became public once you made your first Buzz post, and that there was a check box when making that post which would opt you out of sharing your graph. This defense is weaksauce! Here’s why.

Their first mistake was enrolling all their GMail users without asking first. I notice that the GMail page no longer says “Beta” on it as it did for many years, and if it’s not beta than I shouldn’t have major surprises sprung on me without warning. Their second mistake was automatically making a social graph out of your most-emailed people. The people you email most can be very sensitive information, and it’s not necessarily the same people you want in a social network graph. Their third mistake was making sharing of the graph opt-out rather than opt-in as it should have been. It’s super easy to miss the check box, and the default should always be the safest choice. (This is why Test Pilot is opt-in rather than opt-out, for instance.) Their fourth mistake was that even if I never make a Google Buzz post, I can show up on somebody else’s public list of most-emailed-people, if they didn’t opt out of sharing that information.

This is the same thing that I was angry at Facebook about: I can get entered into a social network database without my knowledge or permission, because of something one of my email contacts did. But this time it’s infinitely worse, because I don’t just get put into a latent Facebook database: I show up on public Google profile pages.

(I’ve heard reports that you can end up with your own automatically-created Buzz network publicized even if you never made a Buzz post, if you had an active Google profile due to other services, like Google Reader or Google Groups. I’m having trouble finding a verifiable source for this, though. Can anyone confirm or deny?)

Having the list of people I email most made public isn’t that bad for me, personally, because I am lucky enough not to have to hide any part of my personal life to protect my safety or my career. I’m not a journalist who has to protect the anonymity of sources, or a lawyer who has to protect the confidentiality of clients, or a whistleblower on corporate corruption, or a political dissident in an oppressive country, whose friends will be targeted by the government if their association with me becomes known. I don’t have to hide from a psychopathic stalker or abusive ex-husband like this woman does. (Her blog is now protected by WordPress and unavailable – did she have to take it down in the wake of the Buzz fiasco due to privacy/safety concerns concerns arising from the Buzz fiasco? The post in question, titled “Fuck You, Google” is mirrored on Gizmodo, and is well worth reading.)

My point is that I’m one of the lucky ones; privacy concerns are far from trivial for many, many people. When someone with privilege and power says 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…” (Eric Schmidt) or “You have zero privacy anyway; get over it.” (Scott McNealy), they show an astounding lack of empathy. They’re obviously not considering things from the point of view of the woman who is the target of violence, or the citizen of an oppressive regime, or the whistleblower, or… anyone other than themselves, basically.

No wonder that a class-action lawsuit is now being filed against Google for the Buzz launch.

I haven’t used Buzz, and I’m not going to. Any chance that I would give it a fair try, write a review, etc. has been destroyed by the way that Google launched it. I’m no longer giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’m even considering dumping my GMail account, which I’ve had since 2004, because it seems that a GMail contacts list is not a safe place to be anymore if Google is going to pull stuff like this.

Before turning Buzz off, I briefly scanned over the list of people to whom I had been auto-Buzz-subscribed. I learned that:

  • A guy I used to know in Chicago, who I haven’t spoken to in years, got a package from FedEx.
  • Another friend is taking a walk.
  • Aza is on an airplane.

Whee. Thank you, Google! Such vital, life-enhancing information is certainly worth the price of broadcasting all our connections to the universe. </sarcasm>

Is this the new status-quo of the internet – that we must constantly be on guard against being recruited into a privacy-compromising social network without our knowledge or consent?

Certainly Google has announced their intention to compete with Facebook, Twitter, etc. and the pressure for each competitor to increase their user count will only increase. Any company doing social networking stuff will face the temptation to press-gang users into their network by any means possible. Ethical companies will resist this temptation and accept only users who have explicitly opted in.

Opt-in and opt-out may seem similar, but there’s a world of difference. Think of all the people who aren’t constantly on top of the latest Internet developments; it might be weeks or months before they discover that they have been automatically joined to something that they need to explicitly opt-out of if they don’t want it.

I am glad to see that Google is now attempting to straighten things out by making the social graph opt-in instead of opt-out. The list of people you email most will now be “auto-suggest” instead of “auto-follow”. That’s good. It’s what they should have done in the first place.