16 February 2010

Google Buzz: privacy, present and future

When I first heard the rumors about a new social service being integrated into Gmail, one of my first reactions was: “expect privacy problems”. Unfortunately for Google’s new service, I was right. Practically not a day got by without another article detailing some new way Buzz exposes your Gmail address, your other addresses shared with close friends or even your physical address through the mobile app. There were also some very heated reactions from the public; one of them has restricted access to the blog in the mean time and you can find pieces of it on other blogs covering the uproar.

Personally, I think this public reaction was completely blown out of proportions. Of course, the massive online coverage only served to amplify the “news”, but after all, what can you expect from journalists, if their main concern is traffic? I mean, nobody gets that worked up about security holes in Microsoft products these days and users aren't massively dumping Windows or Internet Explorer when a new flaw is discovered. I don’t deny Buzz had or still has privacy issues, every online service does, but Google was very quick to offer solutions to the “public” concern. I think the timely reaction proves the company takes the privacy of the users very seriously and that it intends to support the new service in every way that it can.

I saw no indication that Buzz imported items published prior to it’s launch or that it somehow changed privacy settings from private to public on it’s own. In my opinion, people were shocked when they saw how many information they were actually sharing with the web, willingly or not. Suddenly, their public activities were clearly laid out in their very inbox, organized and in real-time. Of course, it’s always easier to put the blame on somebody else and Google became the target.

If you want an example that Buzz does protects privacy, look at “post through email”: it only shares the subject and attached pictures to Buzz and discards the message body. Sure, for most of us this is a major flaw and disappointment, but imagine somebody would accidentally send an important business message to the Buzz address and it would become public! That would really become a huge privacy scandal.

Also, the list of people that were automatically connected to you is only visible to somebody logged in with a Google account. I wonder how many of the people who cried “wolf” are forwarding chain mail every single day without deleting the previous messages or hiding new recipients in the BCC field. Because of this, countless email addresses and names are travelling the Internet every second for spammers to pick. Should we all stop emailing because of that? Still, first impressions be powerful, and Google may have a hard time convincing some of it’s clients of their honesty.

I’m a little more concerned with another aspect of Google Buzz nobody mentioned before, at least to my knowledge: with non-Google services, there is no verification that you are actually the owner of the account imported in Buzz. I can type in anything in the ‘Connected sites’ section and impersonate some high-profile blogger or a celebrity by using their Twitter account and Buzz doesn’t prevent me in any way… I fear this could be used by spammers to create fake accounts and mix their own pages with legitimate content, another way to land on the top page of the Google search results.

I think Buzz is off to a rough start, not necessarily because of privacy, but mainly because it was forced upon users with no previous warning. From my stream I see many people just want to turn it off or have already done so. It’s clearly wrong to assume that, because it’s integrated with Gmail, everyone will adopt the service. Mainstream users will not make much sense of it. Despite the potentially large user base, many accounts will either be silent or post automatically without interaction with other people or remain private, hidden from Google’s indexing bots.

Don’t get me wrong, I love some aspects of Buzz, especially how it brings the whole buzz in your inbox, including the original message. You can continue the discussion without leaving your inbox; it also makes the buzz available for search like a regular email. None of the other networks I used had something this good! In this case integration with Gmail just works! Or consider this: to combat spammers, Gmail has limitations in place that block you from sending mail for the rest of the day if you exceed them. Instead you could replace emails with Buzz messages to specific groups, circumventing the limitations and still receiving replies in the same familiar place! Of course, right now it’s difficult to use this, since Buzz is limited to Google accounts, but it could be a great new communication tool inside a company using Google Apps.

Other features most people feel are vital for an aggregator are missing right now: there’s no easy way to re-share content from buzz to your followers, no way to group the stream into more manageable portions or hide buzz that meets certain criteria. This could be an opportunity for to deal Buzz a big blow before it takes off: as FriendFeed is more mature and feature-complete now, an official announcement from the company that it actively supports FriendFeed and will continue development could bring back disillusioned users that would otherwise turn to Buzz.

It’s also difficult to understand what Buzz stands for, what is the mission. This video from Kevin Rose details why Google needs Buzz: to tap into the stream of user-generated news as an alternative to Twitter. From this video I get the impression this is all about helping Google to stay strong in the search business. How about telling us why we as users need or should use Buzz? That's a good way to gain acceptance; rolling out Buzz without asking first is not.

As much as I want to, I still can’t love Buzz or be excited about it. It just feels like something that has been done before, with a limited degree of success. I don’t get the same impression of vision and revolution as with . Simply put, it’s a good product, not a great one, like Gmail!

In the near future, Buzz will likely pose no significant threat to other established social networks. In fact, I believe it’s related Google services who will see their user base erode. Some Gmail users will migrate to other providers because of perceived invasion of private life. If companies adopt Buzz as a communication channel, Wave will lose some of the potential future clients because of overlapping features and companies being reluctant to upgrade again. But the worst hit will be , probably the app most similar to Buzz, that already synchronizes contacts and comments with it. Occasional users will most likely find Buzz sufficient for their needs, while hard-core users will be put off by the increased noise coming from Buzz. In a way, Buzz is the integration of Reader into Gmail some people have demanded for years, but it could ironically mark the beginning of the end of Reader as an independent service.

I think Buzz will have a short life span in this current form, embedded in Gmail. The best thing for it to evolve and escape the privacy complications is to be separated into a stand-alone network. The Google team working on it should expand it with open standards, as promised, and allow non-Gmail users to connect to Buzz via OpenID, Twitter credentials or (blasphemy!) even Facebook. Only if access to Buzz can become more-or-less universal and platform-independent can it become a hit and rival closed networks for social world domination.

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