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Dear Eric: The Proper Response Is "I'm Sorry"

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Since its launch two weeks ago, Google’s (s goog) new Buzz service has generated a flurry of privacy concerns — concerns that have caused considerable anxiety and outrage in at least one high-profile case, and led to privacy complaints being lodged with both the Federal Trade Commission and the Canadian Privacy Commissioner. So what was Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s response? To suggest that users are overreacting, that “no one was harmed,” and to effectively blame users for misunderstanding the terms of the new service. Blaming your users — that’s pretty classy.

According to The Guardian, the Google CEO told telecom industry types attending the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that the claims about Google publishing private information were “not true,” and that most of the problems were due to “confusion” on the part of users as to what would be publicized when they connected the service to their Gmail accounts. Although he said some of the miscommunication was Google’s fault, he added that “the important thing is that no really bad stuff” happened as a result. In other words, nothing to see here — move along.

For a guy who threw a fit when personal details about where he lives and how much money he makes were revealed — using public information sources — by a CNET writer (which resulted in a ban on contact with the publication that was later lifted), this is a pretty laissez-faire response to the concerns of Google Buzz users. And Schmidt has made similar statements about privacy before. Hey Eric — would it be so hard to just say “We’re sorry?” You can say it now, or you can tell it to the FTC.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum

23 Responses to “Dear Eric: The Proper Response Is "I'm Sorry"”

  1. Schmidt is utterly dismissive of what he see’s as the great unwashed masses. He is bringing a sense of entitlement and unrestrained arrogance to Google’s view of the world.

  2. A lot of Buzz coverage online (including on Gigaom, I am sorry to say) is nothing more than poorly written stuff spreading FUD. I agree that the roll-out of Buzz was in-elegant and not done in the Google-y way of doing things. That apart, most articles have been simply wrong, factually speaking, in their coverage of what Buzz did and did not do, what it can and cannot do.

    I am totally unexposed by Buzz so far. I have two GMail accounts, but have managed to stay private. I had no public profile on Google. I did share some of my Google Reader items publicly. When Buzz came out, I did not use it immediately. Decided to wait and see. Good decision.

    Although Google shows me that I am following a bunch of contacts and they are following me, none of them can see anything I have shared on Reader, nor can they see any of my followers or people I follow. This is because I have not Buzzed or created a public profile. If / when I do either of those things, I will be sure to carefully tweak the settings to exactly what I want. So, for now, I am totally maintaining my privacy on Buzz.

    If you only use Gmail and never cared about your profile page, and you didn’t use Buzz, will you still be shown on other people’s profiles if they follow you?

    I don’t think you’ll be shown on other people’s profiles in this situation. I have never used Buzz myself and I have not created a Google profile. I checked all my followers who have public profiles. This is what I found:

    1. If I am NOT logged into Google and I go to my follower’s public profiles, I am not able to see any information about the people they are following or people who are following them.

    2. If I am logged into Google and I go to my follower’s public profiles, I could see the followers-following lists on some profiles, and not on others. I am guessing that some people are not displaying their followers-following lists on their profiles by tweaking some setting.

    3. If I am logged into my Google account and I go to my follower’s public profiles and they have chosen to display their followers-following lists, I can see full names on those lists. I can see the names of only people who have public profiles. I cannot see the names of followers-followees who don’t have public profiles.

    Here’re my conclusions as someone who doesn’t have a public Google profile and who has not used Buzz (so far):

    1. If you (and your followers-followees) have explicitly chosen to keep something private (or shared with only limited people), Google will not violate your settings.

    2. If you (and your followers-followees) have shared things publicly, regardless of whether you have done so deliberately or inadvertently, Buzz has made your content more easily displayable and discoverable. Repeat: you HAVE to FIRST choose to reveal things publicly before Google will reveal them to anybody.

    The case of the now-infamous “Fuck you, Google!” blogger (linked in article above) is one of inadvertently sharing things publicly. For example, for a long time, she was sharing her Google Reader items publicly even though she really wanted to share it only with her boyfriend. There are ways in which she could have shared those items only with her boyfriend, but she went the public route. When Buzz came along, she was caught off-guard.

    • Personally, I’ve always thought that blaming the users is a cheap way out. Stepping back from this specific Google case, the IT and internet industries have created incredibly complex systems and yet is often very bad at explaining the implications of using them.

      The activation of Google Wave was presented as a big friendly button. Press it and something cool will happen. Any explanations or cautions are hidden behind a smaller link or buried in a lengthy terms and conditions document — which no-one reads because at that moment their goal is to check their email in Gmail, not explore some new facility they’ve never heard of.

      Saying “I’ve used it and I’ve had no problems”, implying that others are stupid for not being as capable, is precisely the same kind of arrogance as Schmidt is showing.

  3. Bill Riski

    I use Google services and am pretty satisfied, but Mr. Schmidt’s words lead me to believe while the breadth and depth of Google services has scaled up, his thinking has not kept pace. Sad.

    • Exactly. Anybody else old enough to remember when Microsoft successfully portrayed themselves as the Little Guy Up Against Evil Corporations? Once you reach a certain size, you unavoidably and irreversibly jump that shark; you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Google, welcome to the Big Leagues.

  4. No, b, “We’re very sorry for the concern we’ve caused” doesn’t count as an apology in my book because it’s corporate wankspeak. They’re not acknowledging that anything bad happened beyond causing “concern”.

    That is, the problem was all about how it was explained, not about the core issue of making a change that significantly affected privacy without any consultation whatsoever.

    The post How Google managed to reveal my sources by Australian journalist Andrew Ramadge is a great example of the many, many posts pointing out the potential problems.

    • Sorry to break this to you, but that Australian journalist’s article is pure b.s. The content of his article directly contradicts his headline. He is just one more guy trying to get some publicity out of this issue. If you actually click on the article you linked and read it, this is what the journalist writes: “I am relatively confident – enough to write this article – that my source remains unnamed.” This statement is a direct contradiction of his headline: “Google managed to reveal my sources”. How the hell can Google manage to reveal his sources, while his source remains unnamed?

      • Jason Lotito

        But they were to blame. The privacy protections were there. I know I’m not the only one who didn’t ‘suffer.’ The simple fact is, people went running off to use a new feature of Gmail, and didn’t bother to read.

        The only appropriate apology that wouldn’t be insulting would be to apologize for realizing that their users aren’t as intelligent as they like to think they are.

  5. If there’s such a thing as corporate Asperger’s, Google is Patient Zero. You don’t respond to Google’s biggest faux pas yet by blaming the people who may have suffered non-trivial harm as the result of something that probably sounded really cool on Shoreline but wasn’t ever run past any actual, you know, civilians.