Google+ Privacy: Has Google Learned Its Lesson?
Since the launch of its Google+ social-networking project, Google has been re-working and tweaking the service based on user feedback, and two privacy-related features will be added in the coming days, as well as a more simplified feed.
Google has been burned on social-related privacy issues in the past, most notably via Buzz, which resulted in class-action and Federal Trade Commission settlements. As a result, all eyes are on the search giant when it comes to Google+; has it learned its lesson or do privacy holes still exist?
Part of the reason Google+ is in this "field trial" stage and not open to the public is so the company can get a sense of how people use it and fix any problems that surface before it goes live. To that end, users have already made suggestions that Google plans to implement.
One concern on the privacy front was the "share" option. If you posted a photo, for example, anyone in your group of friends, or "circle," could share that with anyone in their network with one click. After you post, there's the option to disable sharing, but it's not particularly clear.
"While many of you love the option to share others' posts, some of you weren't quite sure how it worked," Google software engineer Kelly Ellis said in Friday video message.
As a result, Google+ users will now see a pop-up tip when they post telling them how to disable sharing if that's what they prefer. Starting next week, meanwhile, posts that have been designated as limited (or not open to everyone on Google+) will not be shared publicly. Google couldn't provide any additional details on how exactly that would work; users will have to check back next week.
"On Google+, you should be in control of who sees your post," Ellis said.
Google's approach with Google+ is that sharing on the Web should be no different than sharing in real life. To that end, there's always the chance that if you tell someone something, they're going to tell someone else—whether you're on Google+, Facebook, or face-to-face. By providing the option to remove the share button, however, you remove the ease of use. You can't stop someone from copy and pasting something from your feed into an email, but without the share button, it's not as easy to pass it on.
Meanwhile, some users told Google they were seeing the same post over and over again in their stream. "We hear you, and we're rolling out a few experiments that display posts with activity from people you're close to," Ellis said. "We're rolling out these changes over the long weekend, so expect to see them soon."
Privacy Settings: Hands On
To be honest, I was a little hesitant to use Google+. One of the first things it asked me to do when signing on was link the service with my Picasa Web albums. What do I have on there, I thought, and do I want all my colleagues to have access? Also, with the exception of an Android phone, I basically use every Google service available—was Google going to pull in data from across the Web and its services?
In a word, no. If my Picasa albums were private, they stayed that way, and no one was able to peruse my Web history. Initially, however, it was a bit confusing to figure out exactly how to select my privacy settings. But once I got situated it appears that Google+ takes some pages from Facebook's playbook and adds a few improvements along the way.
If you manage to get an invite and sign on to Google+, click on your name in the top-right hand corner and there will be a "Privacy" option in the drop-down menu. On that page, there's an "Edit visibility on profile" section, which will let you edit how people see your profile information. When I first clicked through, though, all the sections available to edit were in a shaded gray color—which, to me, said they were unavailable. Blue link? Click. Gray link? Nothing to see here, move along.
As a result, I initially just clicked off the page and spent a couple minutes looking for other ways to change privacy settings, to no avail. Figuring I'd probably missed something, I returned to the "Edit visibility" page and clicked around, despite the shaded links. What do you know—when you clicked on the various profile options (Education, Employment, Relationship, etc), a pop-up window appeared and gave you the option to select who could view this information.
Under occupation, for example, you can type in your job and then click the drop-down menu that asks, "Who can see this?" Select from Anyone on the Web, Extended Circles, Your Circles, Only You, or Custom. Click Save and you're good to go.
The format is obviously cribbing from Facebook's Everyone, Friends of Friends, and Friends Only options—settings that were added after an uproar over a December 2009 privacy revamp. Like Facebook, Google+ also includes the option to see how everyone in your various circles views your profile.
What Google+ adds and what I found helpful is you edit your profile on your profile. When you click through to the "Edit visibility" page, the options are overlayed on top of your profile, so you know what things will look like as you make changes. Facebook lists these options in a separate section, where you select one over-arching Everyone, Friends of Friends, or Friends Only option, or customize everything one by one. Facebook and Google both appear to offer the same level of protection, but Google+ is slightly more user friendly—once you figure out what you're doing, that is.
One thing to consider, however, is whether you want your profile visible on Google search. The final option in "Edit visibility" is "Search visibility." By default, a box that reads "Help others find my profile in search results" is checked. Underneath, there's a message that says "Unchecking this box will prevent your profile from being indexed by most search engines." If you want people to find you on search engines, no problem, but if you'd rather keep your Google+ profile off the Web, uncheck that box.
If you don't want people to know who your friends are, meanwhile, click "Edit Network Visibility" under Privacy. If will ask which people you want displayed on your profile (all circles or specific circles, for example), and who can view those circles: Anyone on the Web or Your circles. Don't want to broadcast who you've let into your circles? Click that second option.
Similarly, when posting things on Google+, you can select who can view the posts—everyone, a particular circle, or one specific person, for example. Facebook also allows you to restrict status updates or postings to certain groups, but it's more about who you don't want to see your update than those you do.
For photos, found under "Edit photo settings" in Privacy, the options are very similar to Facebook. You can get an email or text message when someone mentions you in a post or tags a photo, for example. But there's some added control over who can tag you in a picture. By default, everyone in your circles can do this, but you can specify people or circles with this privilege, if you choose. You can also opt-in to including geo-location information from photos in newly uploaded albums.
Overall, there are no glaring privacy issues with Google+, but the company has clearly benefited from Facebook's mistakes. Facebook went through a number of privacy revamps before it arrived at its current options, which, with a few exceptions, were seen as largely positive. With Google+, Google takes the best privacy options available on Facebook and adds a couple interesting tweaks. At this point, there's also no third-party developer aspect to Google+, something that has caused Facebook a few privacy headaches.