Bad Buzz: Will Google's Privacy Gaffe Cast Shadow Over Books Deal?

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But Google's poorly thought-out launch of Buzz could have far-reaching ramifications for the company.

Tomorrow, Google executives will attempt to persuade U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin in New York to approve a deal with authors and publishers that would allow Google to digitize and sell countless out-of-print books.

Privacy advocates have criticized the deal, arguing that the court should require Google to protect users' data before green-lighting the plan. Google has downplayed any privacy concerns, arguing that its internal policies will adequately protect users. But, as Google showed all too clearly with Buzz, the company doesn't always have the right instincts when it comes to privacy.

When Google launched Buzz, the company made the much-criticized decision to have Gmail users automatically follow the people they emailed most frequently. Then Google made the even more questionable decision to publicize lists of followers.

Google must have been watching with envy as younger companies like Twitter and Facebook grew their networks by leveraging users' email accounts. Those companies ask people to provide their email log-ins, scrape their contacts, and then suggest friends or followers based on that information. The developers behind Buzz clearly thought that Google could quickly catch up to other social networks by using the Gmail data it already had.

But the company overlooked critical differences: Twitter and Facebook give people a choice about providing their email log-ins. Additionally, Facebook doesn't consider people friends unless both parties agree. And on Twitter, following somebody doesn't necessarily signify a relationship. In many cases, many Twitter users follow other people because they've come across their name through the media, follow Friday, or other users.

Faced with complaints about Buzz, Google retreated very quickly. But for some users, the damage was already done. Once private information becomes public, there's no do-over.

The prospect that Google could also compromise users' privacy with its new book project is certain to be on the minds of advocates who show up tomorrow to oppose the deal. Perhaps it will be on the judge's mind as well -- which could bode poorly for the company.

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