Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Google+ concerns over privacy & usability

While many people have been excited by the advent of Google+ some are becoming angry and concerned over changes Google has made to the accessibility to some of its other products and issues of privacy.

In particular there is a rising tide of concern over how Picasa is integrated into Google's fledgling social networking service.

Millions of people around the world use Google products for a number of different cloud-based tasks. Users create and store documents and files in Google Docs. Calendar provides a useful way of keeping track of events which may be shared with others. Millions use its blogging service daily. And photos are archived and shared safely online by others.

But Google has decided that some products are to be incorporated into Google+ leading to problems for some users.

Google+ allows users to share posts, links, pictures and video with others signed up to the service and be selective with whom they are sharing that data with. However, the way in which Picasa is tied into the service has annoyed some users to the point of distraction.

Before Google+ was rolled out Google account holders could upload photo albums to PicasaWeb and share those pictures with others by adding their email address. The recipient need not have created a Google account and would receive an email alerting them to the availability of pictures. In addition they were able to download the files individually or, if they had the Picasa program installed, the whole album. However since Google+ was launched there have been some dramatic changes to the way the online photo-storage system works.

New albums of pictures are now posted to a user's Google+ stream though they will remain private unless shared. But sharing has become trickier. Adding an email address to those the album is shared with via the PicasaWeb interface has been found not to work with some users. Recipients may not receive an email informing them of the upload and while Google+ users may receive a notification there are other issues which make the service less user friendly than before.

By pressing the share button in Picasa one is presented with a dialogue asking the user to enter a Google+ circle or email address. In doing so the pictures are posted to the Google+ stream, and visible to the owner and to those with whom it is shared. The people with whom it is shared should also receive an email informing them. The drawback is that pictures may only be downloaded individually. There is however an option at the bottom which says 'share by email only'. By entering an email here the recipient should receive a link to the old style Picasa interface, which should work whether or not one has a Google account. As such one can download the whole folder as necessary.  It should be noted that unless the link is regenerated by the owner on the side bar, removing the shared names does not rescind access. And of course regenerating the link would block access for all other the album is shared.

Confused? So are many other Picasa and Google users. And it gets worse. Tagging names in Picasa was seen by some as a useful way of finding pictures of friends and people. And uploaded pictures could also be tagged and even kept in sync to those stored locally on the owners PC. However by tagging a picture on PicasaWeb results in them receiving an email saying that they have been tagged in a picture.

Tagging dozens of not more pictures of someone thus might result in much unwanted email ending up in someones mailbox.

Rather unhelpfully Google only sates the following: "When you add a name tag to a photo, you're letting viewers know who's in that photo. You're also informing people who you've name tagged that a photo of them has been posted. Name tagging a person also lets them access the photo and the related album."

It is this has some Picasa users screaming. After all who wants to send dozens or even hundreds of emails to their friends informing them of a tagged photo. Even more concerning is that the recipient will also gain access to the rest of the album contents.

Some Picasa users have paid a considerable sum to Google to store full resolution pictures online, and for these users in particular the conjoining of Google+ and Picasa is a particular grievance.

Forums have been inundated with complaints over Google's recent changes. But the concerns go beyond issues of face tagging and sharing pictures.

There is a crucial difference between Google+ and other company services like Gmail, whose users have long been able to use pseudonyms to protect their privacy, if they want. Google+ currently requires all members to use their real names and there may be some blurring of line which might raise some red flags for some users.

There is a real risk that people who use their real name in Google+ but use pseudonyms in other Google services may inadvertently expose their real identity by linking Google+ with those services.

Users have to agree to integrate their existing PicasaWeb account with Google+ in order to join Google+. If they do so, the displayed user name on PicasaWeb accounts becomes the real name used in Google+, replacing the one being used before if different.

Recently Google unveiled an initial integration option between Google+ and Blogger that allows publishers to swap out their existing Blogger user profile and replace it with their Google+ profile.

While doing so is optional, Google hailed the benefits tied to such an integration. "In addition to giving your readers a more robust and familiar sense of who you are, your social connections will see your posts in their Google search results with an annotation that you've shared the post. Plus, bloggers who switch will automatically get access to the Google+ integrations we'll be rolling out in the future," the announcement reads.

Of course there is a big drawback too. While Google does alert publishers that they could lose their anonymity, such warnings could be missed. For those who "blog under a pseudonym" linking Google+ to blogger "may not work for you," the company says. But it may not be enough, especially for those that are less tech savvy or fail to read the small print.

Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the World Privacy Forum, says that, when announcing integration options for Google+, the search giant should not encourage users one way or another. "The descriptions need to be clear and neutral," she said in an interview with Computer World.

Google should also be very specific in explaining what the Google+ integrations will entail, says John Simpson, a consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

"Google needs to be crystal clear about what it means by integration," Simpson says. "It must be simple and intuitive for users to control what information from pseudonymous accounts is shared on Google+."

And if they don't it could prove very tricky for Google in the future. John Verdi, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says it is important to raise such concerns. As well as users unwittingly revealing their real identity to the world, Google too could become embroiled in a nightmare scenario whereby a huge number of users inadvertently accept Google+ integrations only to later complain that they did not know their pseudonyms in certain services would be replaced by their Google+ real name.

Google might once again find itself in a privacy controversy that it can ill afford. There was a virtual firestorm after the mistakes Google made with its Google Buzz service. If the company fails its users with Google+ it could be the death knell not only for Google+ but may even threaten the company as a whole. The US government is already looking into Google's practices and its competitors are just looking for any weak spot to gain advantage.

It has to be said that Google is not the only company which has entered the dangerous territory of social networking. Facebook too has battled with users, governments and privacy campaigners over its sometimes atrocious failure to protect its users' privacy.

Whether Google will listen to its users and critics, or face the wrath that may yet come, is not yet clear. The company does seem to have a tendency of ignoring, or at least appearing to ignore the swathes of criticism and complaints found in forums [GoogleSystem blog].

Faults found in Google products are not rare, and a Google search reveals that there are many with the same issues. Some problems date back years and are still unfixed. For many users Google Earth will not update via the 'check for updates' option in the program, returning an error stating there is no network connection. Auto-fill on the GMail subject line has not worked since late 2010. While older subject lines are still remembered new ones are not. Uploading pictures to Google Docs is problematic for many. While never previously an issue, Google now limits the size to 2 Mb. In addition errors are often returned claiming the picture is in the wrong format. It can be remedied by opening the said file in Adobe Photoshop and use the option 'save for web'. The picture remains in the same file type, eg: jpeg, so it is unclear why it is subsequently accepted. However it appears to be an issue for a great many people.

Over and over again are comments asking whether Google employees even read these forums. Indeed there are many who are becoming increasing frustrated at not being listened to they are going elsewhere. Of course that in itself is not always practical.

There were several bugs in Picasa before the recent issues concerning Google+. Face tagging and sync has been an issue for many users with many questioning whether Google had dropped support for the site.

After discovering more and more issues with Google products of late it seems Brin, Page and Schmidt could be likened to being the three monkeys. They don't or can't see the problems and bugs in their products. They don't or won't listen to complaints, criticism or advice. And whenever asked for a response on anything, by the media or in fact anybody they either refuse to comment or issue one line remarks of little or no consequence. There are in fact 13,600 search results for "Google refused to comment" !!

There is a little irony in the three monkeys analogy. Originally the three wise monkeys embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil. Sometimes there is a fourth monkey depicted with the three others; the last one, Shizaru, symbolizes the principle of "do no evil", and as many may also know the mantra of Google.

In the past the meaning is seen as a Golden Rule and adherence to ethical codes. However, the three monkeys have often been used to describe those who do not want to become involved in a situation, or who are willfully turning a blind eye. In fact Shizaru may often be depicted crossing his arms, something Google appears to be doing in the eyes of once loyal users.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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