Who Cares About Online Privacy?

The last time I wrote about Buzz, Google's new Gmail add-on that lets you share links and pictures with friends, I said I loved the feature and left it there. In other words, I completely underestimated/missed the big story of the week, which was that privacy complaints have swarmed and covered Buzz like bees on a bee keeper.

The accusations were serious. To provide early Buzz users with a built-in network of friends, Google automatically culled each Gmail user's most frequent contacts, and publicized the list in their profile. For some, the make-up of that list was innocuous. For others who use email to correspond with acquaintances who aren't friends (like plumbers or kids' teachers) or worse, acquaintances who aren't public (like secret sources and secret lovers), Google's reveal was an embarrassing and unnecessary breach of trust.

The Buzz breach was without question a mistake -- just as it was a mistake for Facebook to upchuck its users' photos onto the Web during its last privacy "update." But the amazing vitriol these episodes produced make me wonder whether I'm way toward the indifferent end of the outrage spectrum.*

This is me speaking entirely personally, so don't mistake what I'm about to say for objective analysis about The Age of Google: I do not really care about my privacy online. I never think about it. If I send a very personal email to a friend about, say, a relationship with a girl in Boston and the small Gmail banner ad whispers "Expedia: Low Prices to Boston!" I notice, but don't really care. When I sense that Facebook is scanning my Interests and Activities in my profile because it's offering me tickets to one of five bands I've listed as favorites, I notice, and don't really care.

So when Daniel Lyons of Newsweek writes that we're paying for free services like Gmail and Facebook with our privacy, my gut response is: good deal! I assume that what I write will be between me and the ad robots trawling Google's online kingdom, and that's fine with me.

And yet, that's precisely why the Google Buzz episode was such a damaging mistake. Our private information -- or contact's identities -- went beyond the ad robots and onto the screens of friends who were never meant to be privy to the information. It's one thing for somebody to be comfortable that his private conversations being watched by an algorithm's eyes. It's another to worry that every time a new Google or Facebook product roles out, another sliver of his once private information will leak into the public domain. I don't care much about my online privacy today. But if Google and Facebook insist on changing the rules every six months, I could be persuaded to give a damn.

*In the long run, my utopian wish is that we all recognize that the Web is teaming with our private information, and adjust our social expectations accordingly. My dream would be that one day, we realize we're living in an age of Embarrassing Information Inflation. That is, we all recognize that there is so much potentially embarrassing information about us on the Web that the individual value of each morsel of potentially scandalous or ignominious information goes down. I recognize, however, that this would first require us to stop caring about scandals, and ... well, I'm feeling terribly optimistic about that.