Google's Orwell Moment

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Lyons

On the Web, privacy has its price.

Google recently introduced a new service that adds social-networking features to its popular Gmail system. The service is called Buzz, and within hours of its release, people were howling about privacy issues--because, in its original form, Buzz showed everyone the list of people you e-mail most frequently. Even people who weren't cheating on their spouses or secretly applying for new jobs found this a little unnerving.

Google backtracked and changed the software, and apologized for the misstep, claiming that, gosh, it just never occurred to us that people might get upset. "The public reaction was something we did not anticipate. But we've reacted very quickly to people's unhappiness," says Bradley Horowitz, vice president for product management at Google.

It's hard to imagine Google could have been so clueless. Google's coder kiddies may be many things, but stupid isn't one of them.

Same goes for Facebook. In December, Facebook rolled out a new set of privacy settings. A spokesman says the move was intended to "empower people" by giving them more "granular" control over their personal information. But many viewed the changes as a sneaky attempt to push members to expose more information about themselves--partly because its default settings had lots of data, like your photo, city, gender, and information about your family and relationships, set up to be shared with everyone on the Internet. (Sure, you could change those settings, but it was still creepy.) Facebook's spokesman says the open settings reflect "shifting social norms around privacy." Five years after Facebook was founded, he says, "we've noticed that people are not only sharing more information but also are becoming more comfortable about sharing more information with more people." Nevertheless, the changes prompted 10 consumer groups to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Maybe it's a generational thing. People my age (nearly 50, a.k.a. "the olds" in blogosphere parlance) would probably rather part with a few bucks than with our personal information. Younger people don't have as much money, and don't care as much about privacy. So they're happy to go along with the deal being offered to them by Google and Facebook. …