Last February, Google launched Buzz, adding a social-networking layer to the array of Google applications that already collect a vast amount of personal information from each of us. People freaked out, and with good reason: Google Buzz assumed that we were eager to share online everything we did and everyone we knew. For one thing, it made public the e-mail addresses of the people we'd been e-mailing or chatting with the most, and it was activated among Gmail users automatically. Google quickly scrambled to address these privacy concerns, but the damage had been done.
Fast-forward to this week's partial rollout of the company's new Google+ social product. The company has tried to bake privacy right into the service. The network allows users to share the Web with friends, family, and interesting strangers according to sharing parameters each person sets for herself, and early reviews are positive. "The verdict after a very short time," says well-known Washington privacy advocate Shaun Dakin, "is that they've done a really good job."
That's something Google is eager to hear. The company is hoping to make privacy a competitive advantage in a social-networking market where the dominant network, Facebook, regularly annoys users with shifting privacy standards; Facebook's market share, some analysts say, has plateaued in the U.S., and for the first time, the service lost users in the U.S. -- 6 million in May. Its onetime competitor, MySpace just sold this week for less than a tenth of what Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation paid for it in 2005. So there's an opening.
Central to Google+'s privacy features is the concept of "circles." In real life, we know different people in different ways, explained then-Google interface designer Paul Adams in a landmark presentation last year titled "The Real Life Social Network." Adams presented the example of "Debbie," who coaches kids' swimming but also has a crop of friends who like to post shirtless photos from the dance bar. On Google+, Debbie can assign these friends to different circles and interact with them separately. What's more, Google never tells users which circles other people put them in. As in real life, we're not quite sure how people think about where we fit into their lives. It's probably better that way.
Experts call it "privacy by design," a concept popularized by Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dr. Ann Cavoukian. A little more than a year after Facebook became available to the general public, designers came up the with idea of grouping friends so users who wanted to share photos of themselves and their drunk friends could keep their godmother from seeing them. But Google+ has done one better in making circles a built-in part of the Plus experience--and in getting us to do all the work; we're responsible for erecting the walls and corrals that help our online life mimic our offline one.
Google has made other smart choices with Plus. Two clicks away from your profile are granular sharing settings that can be tweaked, and the interface itself offers gentle hints about privacy. If users, for example, try to share something someone else posted, Google reminds you that it was originally shared among a limited audience, and that you're about to broadcast it. As with an offline friend who tells you a bit of juicy gossip, Google doesn't stop you from spreading information far and wide, but it encourages you not to be a jerk.
Beyond privacy, Google+ takes on the question about who owns the data we hand over to these social networks -- and here's where we don't yet know how well Google will pull things off. Sure, the Data Liberation Front, a cheeky internal engineering team at Google, has created Takeout, which lets users export data from a range of Google services. It's clear that Google sees this as one of the things that makes it more attractive than Facebook. "It's your data, your relationships, your identity," wrote Google's social guru Vic Gundotra in post on the service's launch.
If that's how Google is thinking, it means the Buzz backlash convinced the company that worrying about privacy and data ownership is what the cool kids do. "[Consumer tech companies] want you to trust them," Dakin says. "They don't want more regulatory oversight, and what they certainly don't want is to give anyone a reason to hold a hearing." Technology changes so quickly, he says, and the Internet is too nuanced a medium to be easily regulated with broad-brush tools like the Do Not Call list, which prevents companies from dialing numbers if citizens opt into it. "Do Not Call is really successful because it's binary," Dakin says. "Put your number on the Do Not Call list, and commercial organizations are required by law not to call you. And Do Not Track legislation is, from a technology perspective, very binary. It's either on or off."
But the problem with the on-off approach to online privacy is that much of the modern World Wide Web is based on the idea that we're willing to trade access to our data to get some pretty amazing free online services, tools, and apps. The Wall Street Journal, for example, found that the music service Pandora was sending ad networks details about users' age, gender, location, and devices. Unsettling? Maybe. But there's a ton of free music in it for us. What trade-off are we in for with Plus? Google doesn't make it clear what the data chain will look like when it starts trying to make money off the information we add to Google+. "Most software developers, particularly young start-up organizations -- what they want is to become the next 'Angry Birds,'" Dakin says. "The last thing they're worrying about is privacy." That's our job.