Skip to main content

Google, let users opt in on privacy setting

By Marc Rotenberg
January 11, 2014 -- Updated 1527 GMT (2327 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google+ users can now e-mail people without knowing their e-mail address
  • Marc Rotenberg: The consequences for users and for the Internet are troubling
  • He says Google should let users opt in rather than opt out of new privacy setting
  • Rotenberg: If government officials do not intervene, things could get much worse

Editor's note: Marc Rotenberg is president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center in Washington. He teaches law at Georgetown University.

(CNN) -- Back in 2010, Google launched a short-lived social network service called "Buzz." Instead of simply promoting Buzz and urging users to sign up for it, or opt in, Google chose instead to sign up Gmail users as Buzz users. If users weren't happy, they could always opt out.

It was a mess. Private e-mail addresses became publicly available as social network contacts. Users rebelled. The Federal Trade Commission investigated, Google backed off, and eventually the company settled with the FTC and agreed not to rope users into new services that they haven't signed up for.

Now Google is back at it.

Marc Rotenberg
Marc Rotenberg

This week the company announced that it was tying the inboxes of Gmail users to Google+ users. By using Gmail addresses to autocomplete messages from Google+ users, Google is basically giving strangers who may not know your e-mail address a way to connect with you through Gmail. This move may bolster short-term value for Google but reduces privacy for Gmail users.

This announcement is partly about the ongoing competition with Facebook, but it is also about Google's increasing integration of user data across various Internet services. That happened when Google decided to revise its privacy policy for Gmail and other Google products so that it could target more advertising and do more profiling of users.

The consequences for users and for the Internet are troubling. From a privacy perspective, Google's action makes it more likely that personal information of users will become more widely available. And as the Internet's most dominant company, Google is exploiting its control over key Internet services to beat back competition and expand its market reach. Those who favor a free, open and democratic Internet should take note.

Google is also unfairly expecting Gmail users to opt out of a service they never signed up for to maintain their current expectations of privacy.

It's fine if some users like the new feature. They should be free to opt in. But those who value privacy should not be expected to check their privacy settings every time a company alters its business model.

With the latest change to Gmail, Google is testing the resolve of regulators to protect privacy. If government officials do not intervene, things could get much worse.

At the moment, Google is simply using Gmail account addresses to auto-complete e-mail addresses for Google+. But of course Google is sitting on the biggest search database in the world and could also use that data it has collected from users to auto-complete e-mail addresses and much more.

In 2010, Google was right to back off the plan for Buzz and the Federal Trade Commission was right to pursue an investigation and help ensure that similar fiascos do not occur. But now that Google is once again commingling data in e-mail accounts and social network accounts, the Federal Trade Commission will need to intervene. Opting out is not the solution.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marc Rotenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1842 GMT (0242 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0035 GMT (0835 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT