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Google Buzz Offends, But Who Really Cares About Privacy?

As users inundate Google (GOOG) Buzz with complaints about privacy, they paradoxically seem willing to give up their true identities elsewhere online. What does Buzz teach business about online anonymity?

First, the rap sheet: launched several days ago, Buzz has already sparked a class action lawsuit, a complaint from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and a "review" from the Canadian government. According to SFGate, the lawsuit, brought by a Bay Area firm representing a Florida woman, alleges that Buzz's "auto-follow" feature could "aid stalkers, jeopardize journalist sources, or hint at affairs." In its complaint, the EPIC says Google turned Gmail into "a social networking service" and "that's not what [users] signed up for."

Lawyers have predicated some of their action on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law usually reserved for protecting the computers of governmental agencies and banks.

But there's something amok with all this privacy talk: it seems at odds with the very factors that made Gmail so popular in the first place. Recall that before Gmail, most people gave their email accounts anonymous monikers or "handles," and didn't use their real names. Gmail popularized the "firstname.lastname@gmail.com" model. If users weren't using their actual names as addresses, Buzz would have made a much smaller splash. Why were users content to out themselves in the first place? Why are they so annoyed of the sudden?

Facebook reveals a similar dichotomy. When the company first unveiled News Feed and Mini-Feed in 2006, there was ubiquitous outrage. At the time, BusinessWeek wrote:

By the following day, hundreds of thousands of Facebook's most avid users turned on the site, horrified by what they viewed as an invasion of privacy. Thousands of people e-mailed the company. A group was formed called "Students Against Facebook News Feed." Petitions were circulated. Students in Florida even planned a boycott of the site Sept. 12. It had to be stunning for Zuckerberg, who wasn't granting press interviews. A week before launch, when asked if he was concerned about a privacy backlash, he appeared surprised, saying, "No, these people share stuff already and they get something out of sharing."
It's almost impossible to imagine Facebook without its feeds today; they've become the site's most distinctive (and perhaps addictive) feature. Founder Mark Zuckerberg said in January that users acceptance of feeds indicates that privacy is no longer a "social norm." Speaking at the Crunchie awards, he said:
People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.
Of course, he's in the business of over-sharing -- no wonder he'd say that. But other pundits have spoken out in agreement, if unintentionally.

In a Wall Street Journal piece dated January 8th, tech author Jared Lanier argues that open-sourcing and crowd-sourcing Web businesses leads to a "dull, average outcome in all things." Better to have a small group of engineers building proprietary tools with one singular vision, he says; that's what leads to innovation. But by promulgating "innovation," Lanier also tacitly endorses pushing the limits of what we deem "acceptable" online; forging into uncharted territory is innovation by definition. If we want innovative Web tools, he rightly implies, it may to commit some violence upon our notions of what's permissible.

Christopher Poole, a 21-year-old known online as "moot," is the founder of 4Chan (don't go there; trust me), an online message board infamous for its generation of such popular "memes" as Rickrolling and Lolcats. At TED 2010, he pleaded with the audience to quit giving up their online anonymity so easily. Says ArsTechnica:

In the closing minutes, moot's purpose for speaking became clear: he insisted that anonymity is a good thing, yet we're all giving it up voluntarily. He wasn't talking about the NSA or tech policy or anything like that. Rather, he said sites like 4chan may go the way of the dinosaur because people are choosing to join social networking sites and persistent identity services. One of the 'Net's greatest strengths is disappearing as a result, but moot claimed that sites like 4chan show that a lot of good can come of anonymity, too. He seemed puzzled as to why everyone wants their identity tied to so much of what they say and do online. Do people hold back? Do they censor themselves?
To its credit, Google has acted quickly to ameliorate some of the more offensive aspects of Buzz; no longer do you automatically "follow" all your contacts, and you can now turn Buzz of completely if you'd like. But once the initial dust-ups settle, I bet users will find themselves remarkably comfortable with what Buzz does, so much so that it may trigger some attrition of Facebook's popularity among the technorati. People don't like having their privacy snatched away, the Buzz debacle may suggests, but wait long enough, and they'll gladly give it up of their own volition.