Can Yahoo Avoid the Privacy Pain of Facebook and Google?

It hasn’t gotten a lot of notice, but Google isn’t the only one that’s been adding social networking features to its email, the way the search giant did via the much-criticized Google Buzz: fellow web giant Yahoo has been gradually rolling out a similar suite of features called Yahoo Updates, which integrates connections to Twitter and other services into the company’s email. Users will soon be able to post updates to the micro-blogging network, and will also be able to respond to Facebook email from their Yahoo accounts. But can Yahoo manage to avoid the storms of privacy-related criticism that Google and Facebook have suffered over their attempts to make their users more social?

The recent blog post announcing the rollout of the new features — co-authored by Anne Toth, VP of global policy and head of privacy for Yahoo, and senior director of social platforms Cody Simms — starts off with the statement: “Privacy seems to be on everyone’s mind right now.” It goes on to say that:

The Internet is changing each day, and as we create new products and make changes at Yahoo!, we want to share them so that you are able to make informed decisions about your privacy preferences. We are also committed to making these decisions simple, visible and easy for you to manage.

The post never refers to Facebook or Google, or the criticisms they’ve been weathering over the launch of the Open Graph protocol and new privacy settings, as well as Google Buzz and Google Street View, respectively, but it’s obvious that such incidents are the subtext behind Yahoo’s careful wording about privacy and the emphasis on user control. The company mentions in several places before you log in to the new features that you can choose what to share, and points users (of which it has about 280 million) to the page where they get to control the access that companies and their friends have to their content.

One check box reads “allow my connections to share my information labeled ‘My Connections’ with third-party applications they install and developers who made the applications,” something that Facebook has been criticized for by some. And it’s interesting to see what defaults Yahoo has chosen, despite the recent controversies experienced by their competitors. For example, according to its blog post, “Because the majority of events listed within Updates are inherently public activities, our defaults are set to allow anyone to see them.” Facebook was criticized for similar behavior in making public profile information available by default, requiring users to specifically opt out if they didn’t want to participate.

It remains to be seen whether Yahoo’s new features cause any similar upheaval among its users, or whether the company has taken enough care to telegraph the changes and how to control them. As Liz wrote recently, Microsoft also upgraded its Hotmail email service with new features, but it doesn’t have any that are explicitly social the way Yahoo and Google do, with the exception of enhanced photo sharing.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why New Net Companies Must Shoulder More Responsibility

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