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News & Features | Jul 8th, 2011

The Google+ Project, Will it Solve Privacy Problems?: The Social Media Privacy Report

Jillian Ryan

Google has been trying to get its hands on a piece the social media pie that has been dominated by Facebook. One of its last major attempts, Buzz, was not only a complete failure,  but it also ended in a class action lawsuit over privacy issues. As this column covered in late 2010, there is an ongoing cold war of sorts between Google and Facebook, and the question is whether the new Google+ Project will give the search conglomerate a one-up.

A recent comic on XKCD (pictured at left) illustrates that Google+ has the potential to become popular, mainly because it is not Facebook.  As reported by PC World, the American Customer Satisfaction Index did a survey that found Facebook to be the 10th most hated company in America.  This may be a selling point for many current Facebook users who are growing tired of the numerous privacy problems to switch to Google+.

So let’s make it simple for you (or as simple as the juxtaposing notions of privacy and social media can be) and talk about the good, bad and ugly privacy elements that will make or break Google+.

The Good

Currently the network is only open to select individuals on an invite basis only. Focused on letting you share photos, links, and videos with your online friends, family and acquaintances, Google+ lets you target your sharing with specific people instead of the default share with all popular on Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, the new platform offers video chat and instant messaging features for chat with individuals or groups of up to ten people.

Using Circles, Google+ allows you to group your friends and contacts into different subsets. That way you have your college buddies and family, separate from your co-workers and your book club friends. Similar to the idea of Friends List on Facebook, Circles help you segment your contacts and what you share, but they are easier to assemble with a simple drag and drop functionality.

The privacy community went berserk last month when Facebook rolled out its new facial recognition software. For the time being, it seems that Google+ is smartly staying away from this technology. According to another PC World story, Google’s new baby has better photo tagging features. Basically the technology is similar to Facebook; you draw a square around the head of the person you wish to tag and then type in their name. However, when you tag someone, Google+ shows you this: “Adding this tag will notify the person you have tagged. They will be able to view the photo and the related album.” Thus Google is allowing people to opt out of being tagged before a possibly unflattering or unwanted picture of them shows up in the network’s stream. Facebook does not provide this option.

The Potentially Bad and Ugly

Once you join Google+ there may be no escaping it and that is a scary thought for some reviewers.  According to the International Business Times, Google+ is everywhere in your own Google world. When you are searching the web, looking at your Google Docs, using your Gmail account or accessing your calendar, Google+ is always on behind the scenes. The article continues to quote Tony Bradley of PCWorld who explains the integration further, “There are benefits to having the social network integrated with other areas of our lives. But, with other social networks, those integrations are a conscious choice made on a case by case basis. With Google+, your entire Google ecosystem is integrated whether you like it or not."  It appears that Google doesn’t give you a choice and that Google+ will always be running in the background, with notifications appearing on the top navigation bar and the ability to share available at any time.

And even though its only been a little more than a week, a potential privacy flaw has already come to fruition: the concept of resharing. Basically, aforementioned, users can select which circle of people they want to share a particular piece of content, photo or thought with.  For example, a user decides to post a picture of him chugging beer with his “Friend” Circle. The Financial Times reported the possible hazard that can occur if someone in your “Friends” Circle decides to forward or re-share this with one of his Circles; now this piece of information is going beyond the Circle it was initially intended for. When FT called Google out on this problem, the search giant responded and is worked on a fix, as is reported by the FT here.

The lesson learned from this is that Google+ certainly isn’t perfect, but it seems to be learning from Facebook’s mistakes and it wants to take the user’s privacy seriously.  The question is, as a social network, can it?

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