They are the two superpowers of our web experiences, and they have been butting heads over social media and searchability for some time. The byte of contention is whether Google can search people’s profiles (especially their ‘Likes’) for Google’s searches and whether Facebook can tap into GMail contacts to further one’s list of friends. For those enmeshed in the two services, sharing their shared information seems a no-brainer. But the conflict over which service gets precedence, especially over the issue of ‘privacy,’ has only gotten uglier in recent weeks.
As was uncovered last week, Facebook hired the PR firm Burson-Marsteller to plant stories in the media that stressed Google’s carefree attitude toward its users’ privacy. Staff at Burston-Marsteller pitched similar stories to a few major news outlets, who in turn got wind through social-networking contacts, that the same stories were being whispered by the same people to different organizations. Oh, the irony.
Not that Google gets off as the innocent bystander. As USAToday reported last week:
Google’s Social Search, of which Social Circle is now part of, was launched in October 2009 as a tool to help remind Gmail users of the people they regularly e-mail or chat with, so-called direct connections. The service also privately sends each Gmail user the names of “secondary connections,” a listing of the people each direct connection happens to be following publicly on the Web.
Google prompts Gmail users to voluntarily connect any accounts they have on Facebook, Yahoo, Flickr, LinkedIn, Quora, Twitter or Yelp to their Google profile. Google then mines those connected accounts for individuals who become secondary connections.
“Social connections are based on publicly available information and private connections you have on Google products and services,” explains Gaither [Chris Gaither, Google's senior manager of global communications and public affairs]
USA TODAY asked 26 avid Gmail users about Social Circle and found only two were vaguely aware of the service, while 14 said they would disable the service, if they could, citing privacy concerns. Gaither attributes low awareness to the fact that Google purposely designs new features “to blend seamlessly … because that’s what our users prefer.”
USAToday’s impromptu poll suggests Gaither is trying to sweep consumers’ privacy concerns under the rug.
And it turns out Facebook’s leadership were behind the stories that challenged privacy practices at Google.
Like a Cold War spy case made public, the PR fiasco reveals—and ratchets up—the growing rivalry between Google and Facebook. Google, the search giant, views Facebook as a threat, and has been determined to fight back by launching a social-networking system of its own. So far, however, Google has not had much luck, but Facebook nonetheless felt it necessary to return fire—clandestinely.
The drama between the two internet behemoths in the press might, unfortunately, mask the privacy issues that underpin it. Both Facebook and Social Circles are about sharing one’s information. But,, the question is whether the corporations or the individual users decide how much gets shared.
Written by: Christopher Gardner, PhD