Google can’t seem to stop kicking the privacy hornets’ nest.
Internet privacy advocates are questioning Google’s recent changes to the way Google+, the company’s social networking effort, ties into its Gmail service.
The changes make it possible for all Google+ users to email one another using Gmail, whether or not they know each others’ email addresses.
While the company positioned the move as a way for Google+ users to connect more easily with one another, questions immediately surfaced from privacy advocates and former Google employees as to the reasonableness of the new feature.
“There are well-developed privacy norms surrounding email, and for many users, that includes keeping an address (or equivalent) private,” Jonathan Mayer, a PhD. candidate at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society, told Re/code. In 2012, Mayer was instrumental in an investigation into Google’s privacy practices on Apple’s Safari browser.
“Whatever the merits of that view, it plainly exists. And it’s disappointing, albeit hardly surprising now, to see Google bobble an obvious privacy issue,” he said.
In that vein, problems with consumer protection and privacy issues aren’t foreign to Google. The company was fined $22.5 million by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 for the aforementioned Safari browser snafu. And in 2011, Google agreed to undergo regular, independent privacy audits as part of a settlement with the FTC, after the government agency charged it with deceptive privacy practices in the launch of its Google Buzz social network.
Surprisingly, the new Gmail-Google+ feature rollout has some things in common with Google’s Buzz service, which also used Gmail to connect users via messaging. And like Google Buzz, the new Google+ feature is opt-out, not opt-in — meaning you’ll have to explicitly change your settings after Google automatically switches it on for all users in the next few days.
“This is exactly what gets these sorts of companies in trouble with regulators,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Adi Kamdar. “Depending on the roll out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a push to get the FTC to look into this.”
A spokesperson for the FTC declined to comment on the changes.
Aside from the privacy implications, former Google+ team members are questioning the product sensibility of the changes.
“Last I checked, email is a communication medium that essentially allows two unique identities to send messages,” wrote David Byttow, a former Google+ engineer who took to Medium to share thoughts on the announcement. “I guess the thinking is that you should be able to send a message to anyone that is connected to you in Google+. But, I thought that’s what Google+ Hangout Chats were for?”
Former Google+ team member Kevin Rose expressed a similar opinion on Twitter.
To me, it seems clear that just as with Buzz, Google is trying to leverage the power of one of its most trusted assets — Gmail — to boost the profile and utility of its social network. But from a consumer practices standpoint, the move is questionable at best.
And after all, we all saw how well this worked out for Google last time.
James Temple contributed reporting.