Google plus Facebook: cover your privates

18 July 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

We’re pretty switched on, the human race.  Think about it: ten years ago, we didn’t have smartphones. Twenty years ago, there was no internet as we know it today. Forty years ago, the average office wouldn’t have had a fax machine.  That Android or iPhone casually jammed in your back pocket contains more computing power than the NASA space mission that put two men on the moon back in 1969.

It’s been a dream ride.  But now, people wildly embracing social network sites (SNSs), most obviously seen with the ubiquitous, gargantuan monster of Facebook, are encountering problems they have never had to deal with before.  Privacy is something us plebs have always taken for granted, and in the days of fax machines Skynet wasn’t exactly an imminent threat.  But what about now?

Facebook has 750 million members strong this year, and as it closes in on one billion people (or just over one-seventh of the entire population of planet earth) it has a powerful stranglehold on the SNS market. 

But as a wise man in a lycra suit once said, with great power comes great responsibility.  And while Facebook is happily chuffed with its power, in terms of personal privacy you could say that it has taken the notion of responsibility and just shit all over it.  And not wiped properly afterwards.

These privacy issues are problems to which the average Facebook user wouldn’t give more than a moment’s thought. Both Johnny T Hipster and Grandma McCrockpot upload pictures of their new fixie or red-faced grandchild, post on walls, tag away and update their statuses with abandon. 

But how much faith should we be putting in a company whose CEO, the wunderkind extraordinaire Mr Mark Zuckerberg, said in 2010 that ‘privacy is no longer the social norm’?  A CEO who has so little regard for privacy that, in 2004, he hacked into two Facebook users email accounts and read their emails?

Facebook privacy settings have always been notoriously difficult and cumbersome to use.  Facebook is also renowned for making privacy changes regularly and sneakily. 

One example: when people friend request you, Facebook used to have ‘Confirm/Reject’ options.  Now it’s the more genteel ‘Confirm/Not Now’.  Which is all well and good, until you realise that if you click on the ‘Not Now’ option, that request doesn’t go away, and that person is now able to see all your public information, which also streams in his or her News Feed.  You have to manually go in to a ‘Hidden Requests’ page buried within Facebook’s interface design to delete the request. This is all part of Facebook trying to connect you whether you want to be or not.

That’s the tip of a very insidious iceberg. You know all those ‘Like’ buttons that are everywhere on the web?  Facebook tracks you through them.  It knows where you are and what you’re viewing at all times, whether you are logged in to Facebook or not. 

It even does this with non-users, which has led to several lawsuits against Facebook brought by countries that still relish little concepts like personal privacy.  It used to let external websites post all your Facebook activity data without asking you.  Oh, and it also reads your private email.

Creeped out yet?  A knight in shining HTML may be on the horizon in the form of good old ‘merican capitalist competition. Google has come to the party with SNS Google+, launched on 28 June and now in the hush-hush beta testing phase. 

All my neckbeard techy friends are on it and lauding it as the greatest thing ever (as they will probably laud the first time they touch a real woman).  The big difference between Google+ and Facebook seems to be the way you access and share your information.  Rather than one big block of friends, Google+ allows you to organise your contacts into easy drag-and-drop groups (‘Circles’) and interact with them separately, and ‘Hangouts’ enable multiple-user video chat.

It’s hard to make a call on this one considering the newness of the product, but on the surface you would have to say, competition ain’t bad — especially taking into account the lion’s share of the market that Facebook has been wallowing in ever since displacing MySpace three years ago.  But what sort of competition are we looking at?  As my friend said, ‘I think it’s cute that Google+ asked for my information when I signed up.’ 

And here’s another rat’s nest of privacy issues. Because of course Google already knows everything about you.Chrome comes with an active geolocation feature, so it always knows where you are to bring you more ‘personalised’ results. 

And if you use Gmail, Google will also read your private emails, looking for keywords to show you ‘more relevant and useful’ ads in the hope that you’ll buy more shit. 

Let’s not even bring up last year’s PR horror that was Google’s first awful SNS attempt, Google Buzz, except to say that Buzz automatically posted all your Gmail contacts publicly, so the whole world got to see who you communicate with.  Pretty shitty if you were a private person, had a bit on the side, or you had an abusive ex-husband you weren’t so keen to see.

But all that’s in the past, and everyone deserves a second chance, even obscenely huge multi-national companies. Amirite?  Who’s to say that Google hasn’t got it right this time? Public feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive.  The jury’s still out on whether that’s because Google+ is actually good in its own right or just because it offers a welcome alternative from Facebook.

But looking at the privacy issue in this light is like looking at real estate prices inSilicon Valleyin order to understand the evolution of the internet.  It misses the point.

Ten years ago the concept of privacy was a fixed thing.  With the rise of SNSs, ‘privacy’ is now fluid, optional, and a product to be marketed.  People may be content to have their information available, but the lack of options in the first place is disconcerting, if not downright alarming. 

Facebook and Google+ might compete in terms of user numbers or advertising cost, but one thing on which they won’t be competing is the protection of personal privacy.

The internet is a public realm, but information posted in confidence should be just that – confidential.  Personal privacy is something punters should be holding a bit closer to their collective chest, instead of throwing down the throat of companies that have proven again and again that they believe people’s information is a commodity to be exploited and not an asset to be respected.

Renee Tibbs is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is a former editor of upstart. Her blog is called duck down the alleyway, and she tweets at @reneealleyway.