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Locked into Google

Duncan McLeod

[By Duncan McLeod] Privacy advocates voiced concerns this weekend about Buzz, Google’s new social networking service. Buzz reportedly exposed users’ contacts to others, without consent. That raises a question: how easy would it be to extricate oneself from Google?

Privacy is a growing concern in an increasingly electronically interconnected world. People share vast amounts of information via services like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and now Buzz, Google’s belated attempt to become a force in social networking.

But not all information that is stored online is meant for public consumption. For example, people use services like Gmail to keep their list of contacts. My contact list, which I store in Gmail, contains the cellphone numbers of company CEOs and even cabinet ministers. If those numbers were exposed, my contacts would be seriously ticked off.

I also don’t want people to know who I chat to in my instant messaging program. I’d prefer information like that to be kept confidential and I know I’m not alone.

So the news at the weekend that Buzz was showing people’s contact lists to other users is cause for alarm.

Google has reacted quickly, switching off a feature where you automatically follow existing Gmail and Google Talk contacts. But the change in policy comes a little late.

Google’s privacy snafu got me thinking about whether I could simply unhinge myself from the company’s services.

I have friends who unsubscribed from Facebook precisely because they had issues with the social networking site’s approach to privacy.

But I’ve realised that unsubscribing from Google is virtually impossible. Like millions of other people, I have become so dependent on it that deleting my account would have a significant adverse effect on my productivity.

The extent to which I’m locked in is extraordinary. First there’s Gmail, where I store tens of thousands of e-mails, which I can search through in an instant.

Most of my friends and work colleagues subscribe to Google Talk for instant messaging — and I use IM all day long — so moving to another provider like Microsoft would be painful.

Then there’s Google Maps, which I use to get directions to meetings, and Google News, which has become an essential research tool and an important way of driving traffic to this website. And Google Analytics is essential for monitoring that traffic.

Google Finance is an awesome way of accessing real-time stock market information — the other free finance sites just aren’t as good — and Google Groups is still the best tool for managing e-mail lists.

Let’s not forget Google Calendar, which manages my work week. It even SMSes me to remind me about meetings.

If I were to delete my Google account, my productivity would nosedive. I’d be forced to use clunky offline solutions to plan my use of time, for example.

Either alternatives don’t exist, or the pain of migrating is too great. Microsoft, though putting up a good fight, doesn’t yet have the same breadth of online services as Google.

In many respects, Google has achieved the sort of lock-in on the Web that Microsoft has achieved in desktop computing with Windows and Office. The pain of switching to Linux or Mac OS X is simply too great for most users. The same increasingly applies to Google’s online services.

Because it’s so difficult for people to migrate wholesale to other Web-based services, it’s essential that Google take the protection of its users’ private information seriously.

That’s why the debate around Buzz is such a serious issue. Google has a responsibility to consider in careful detail the privacy implications of everything it does.

5 Comments

  1. What is particularly worrying is that the two founders – Brin and Page – are going to be giving up veto rights in 5 years time. They are the advocates of “Do no evil”, who will look after that when they’re no longer in control?

    Chris Preen

  2. Just to be clear, were actual telephone numbers for contacts exposed? I’m not sure that’s accurate.

  3. @bob: It’s hard to say exactly what was exposed, as Google changed quite a bit and never told anybody what they were doing. And that’s a big part of the problem, at no point were you told what you were exposing, and who you were exposing it to. You had to trawl around blogs of people who had fiddled with buzz and analyzed what it was doing to get an idea of what was going on. Trying to get buzz itself to tell you what it was doing was, and stll is, an exercise in futility.

    What it certainly did do, though, is expose the private email addresses of people you were following/followed, which Google added automatically without your permission.

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