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Google Buzz Is A Giant ‘Buzzkill’

Google has made what is, perhaps, the biggest and dumbest mistake in the company’s history…Google Buzz.  In the interest of full disclosure, I write that to you as a staunch Google fan.

Attempting to capitalize on the successes of social networking services like Twitter and Facebook, Google introduced Buzz on February 9, 2010.  Google Buzz provides social sharing/networking capability built directly into Gmail.  For those of you who are Gmail users, you probably have already experienced the Buzz, or as a colleague of mine put it, the “Buzzkill.”

When I first heard that Google intended to provide social networking/sharing capability as part of Gmail, the idea tantalized me.  I adore Twitter, so the possibility of a Twitter-like experience built into my favorite email system seemed like a good idea.  Unfortunately, Google apparently did not give any consideration to privacy concerns before rolling this thing out.

An article in today’s Technorati, for example, cited 3 privacy problems with Google Buzz:

“Gmail contacts are automatically imported into Google Buzz. Automatically listing people you email often as your Buzz contacts sure is convenient. However, Buzz makes the list public. So each one of your contacts will be able to see everyone else in your list.”

As an article in TechCrunch put it, “the people you follow and who follow you are made public by default on your profile page, but are based on people who [sic] you email the most in private.”

In other words, for attorneys that use Gmail to email clients often, your clients’ email addresses would be made public by default, a fact that may get us into hot water ethically and will almost certainly irritate the clients.

“Do you use the Android smartphone? Your photos may be in Google Buzz without you knowing it.”

“With Google Buzz, you can run but you can’t hide. If you use the mobile application for Google Buzz, your exact location can and will be broadcast to everyone in your contact list.”

If you want an example of how serious these privacy gaffes by Google can become, read the article about the user whose Gmail account wound up being exposed to an abusive ex-husband.  Sounds extreme?  Maybe, but Google took it seriously enough that the company is already tweaking and modifying Buzz to make it easier to unfollow people, block people, and disconnect your other Google services from Buzz.

It’s nice that Google is moving so quickly to make such changes, but let’s get real.  The company is in full damage control mode, and this service is 2 days old.

My guess is that Google Buzz sounded really cool in collaboration sessions.  As we attorneys often learn the hard way, however, “the Devil is in the details.”  We attorneys also know that the Devil can be in how something takes off (or not) when it is presented to the public.

In unveiling Buzz, Google performed about as gracefully as Slovene ski jumper, Vinko Bogataj.  Who’s Vinko Bogataj you say?  I am dating myself here, but Bogataj was the unfortunate athlete that ABC’s Wide World of Sports showcased during the 1970s and 80s as the program opened.  He was featured as an example of the “agony of defeat” as he catastrophically crashes while attempting a high ski jump.

Google probably won’t suffer the “agony of defeat” over Buzz, but they must already be stinging a little.  As Eric Goldstein, founder of Amplify.com wrote in a post this morning on his service:

“Instead of feeling like I just discovered something new that I’d like to try, Buzz made me feel like a piece of cattle being herded by Google.  They decided for me that I wanted to use Buzz, that I wanted it in my Gmail, that I wanted to follow certain people, etc.  I have never encountered anything that did all this assuming on my behalf, and I don’t like it.”

Neither did I, so I opted to turn Buzz off, at least for now.  My recommendation to attorneys is to also turn off the service, at least for now.  You can turn the service off by going to your Gmail page, scroll to the bottom, and there you will see a link that says “turn off Buzz.”  If you don’t turn off the service, then at a minimum, I recommend that you take a look at this privacy checklist.

I am sure there will be more to come with this topic, and I will do my best to keep you informed on any developments and how I think they might affect the practice of law.

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