Google announced a small change to Google Reader back on December 14 which seemed innocent enough, and in line with their goals of making all the world’s content searchable. Nevertheless, users of the service have been none too pleased with the change, citing serious privacy concerns and raising hell over the holidays.
The update to Google reader now takes blog posts and articles that one has marked for sharing and has made them available to everyone that person had listed as a friend or contact on the Google Talk instant messaging service. What’s wrong with that you say?
Well, I don’t know about anyone else’s settings, but when I’m in Gmail, it seems like it adds everyone I’ve ever emailed or chatted with to my list of contacts.
Some of those people aren’t really “friends” and I’d like to limit the personal information that I supply to them.
The problem with the new feature is not that you can share this information with all of your contacts, but rather, the fact that Google assumed we’d all want to share it. Instead of just flicking the switch and enabling this feature, Google should have probably left settings as-is, and allowed people to “turn on” the feature if they so desired. A simple announcement that the new feature existed and could be turned on would have sufficed.
What this reminds me of is Facebook’s Beacon, the controversial advertising platform which automatically shared Facebook user information without their consent. Did the folks at Google not pick up the newspaper or catch the headlines over at Google News? How they could possibly escape at least minor awareness of that whole debacle befuddles me. Or, perhaps, they were aware of it, but didn’t think that what they were doing was in the same vein or as big of a deal.
On the flip side of things, should users really be all that shocked or concerned that people can find out what stories you’ve shared? Is it such a big deal that someone sees that you tagged a story about, say, the Iraq War or rumors about the next BlackBerry phone? Shouldn’t we as users of the internet expect that anything we do or say online can be, at some point, traceable?
In response to those questions, I would say that yes, we should be aware that in using various internet services we may unknowingly transmit data to third parties. However, Google and other companies shouldn’t make it any easier than it already is. In other words, they should have known better.
To remedy the situation, I would suggest that Google make some adjustments to the feature to allow users to have more control over who can and cannot see the items that they mark for sharing.