Consumer Watchdog, a frequent Google critic, is responding to Google's move to integrate Google+ with Gmail. Earlier this month, the company announced a new feature that, it says, makes “it easier for people using Gmail and Google+ to connect over email.” The feature will allow Google+ users to reach the Gmail in-boxes of their Google+ connections. The company isn't divulging the recipients' email addresses to senders, unless recipients reply to the messages.
Google is enabling the feature by default for most users -- meaning that people who don't like it must opt out. (Google isn't turning on the feature by default for Google+ users with a large number of followers, like celebrities. The company says the cutoff is in the “thousands,” but won't give a precise number.)
Consumer Watchdog argues that the FTC should require Google to revise its plans by making the feature opt-in only for everyone. “While it is possible to opt out of privacy intrusions, many -- if not most -- people will stay with the default setting,” Consumer Watchdog says in its letter to the agency.
The advocacy group also argues that the Google+/Gmail integration violates a consent agreement Google entered into with the FTC stemming from the rollout of Google Buzz. At launch, Buzz revealed information about the names of users' email contacts, if users activated the feature without changing the defaults. That design meant that people's confidential information -- including the names of Gmail users' doctors, lawyers or coworkers -- could become known. The company revised Buzz shortly after unveiling the service, but was unable to stem widespread criticism, or an FTC enforcement action.
Consumer Watchdog says that this newest integration “clearly shares information with third parties in ways that are different than when much of the information was gathered.” The group adds: “It is a material change from past information and data sharing practices on Google+ and Gmail.”
Google takes issue with that characterization. “This feature makes it easier for users to connect with the people they know, and users decide who can contact them with a new Gmail setting,” the company said in an emailed statement. “No personal information is shared with third parties unless a user explicitly takes action to do so.”
Google might be right, technically, in that the company isn't divulging Gmail addresses. Even so, when people respond to the messages they will end up revealing their email addresses. Many of those users probably won't mind doing so. But some inevitably will respond out of habit, without realizing that they're now providing information about themselves to the person who sent the message. And at least some of those users won't be happy when they realize what's happened -- regardless of whether the feature violates Google's agreement with the FTC.