By Harry McCracken | Friday, February 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm
“On the surface, it sounds like a wow idea…Truth be told, however, this is the kind of technology advance that gives me the creeps…That’s why the big thinkers at Google should go back to the drawing board and correct a big mistake, before it’s too late.”–Charles Cooper, Cnet
“I think this whole thing could be an electronic noose…The more defined you are, the more definable you are, the more you’re exposed [to possible security problems].”–analyst Roger Kay as quoted in a Washington Post article
“The interplay between the creation of an inalienable right to privacy and the application of this right to the private sector is important. It requires Google to obtain the affirmative consent of individuals before violating their privacy.”–an open letter to the California Attorney General signed by privacy advocates
What do the above three comments have in common? Nope, it’s not that they’re expressing angst over Google Buzz’s privacy issues. They all date from almost six years ago, when Gmail was brand new and plenty of intelligent people were freaked out over the idea of an e-mail service scanning messages for keywords and displaying relevant advertising. As far as I can remember, it was the biggest privacy-related furor Google had encountered until this week.
Today, I don’t know of anybody who’s terrified of Gmail. (Okay, there are probably people who still don’t like the idea, but–this may shock you–they probably solved the problem by deciding not to become Gmail users.)
In retrospect, the original Gmail kerfuffle seems silly, and Google’s response back in 2004–which was to pretty much hunker down and deploy the service without changes–feels like the right one. The company was doing something new and inventive, and it took the world a while to get its head around it.
So can Google draw any lessons from the Mother of All Gmail-Related Controversies as it figures out what to do about Buzz? Yes, but I worry that it might draw the wrong ones. The concern over Gmail and the concern over Buzz’s conversion of e-mail contacts into public lists of who Buzz users are following don’t have much in common with each other. With Buzz, the hubbub has nothing to do with fear of the unknown. It’s just that lots of people consider information about who they converse with via e-mail to be a private matter, and that a company that has access to that info should treat it gingerly.
I think that Google can make some fairly minor (additional) changes to Buzz that would instantly satisfy almost everybody. And I hope it does, rather than trying to ride this out. Because the people who are upset now are fundamentally different from the 2004 alarmists in one important way: They have a good point.