7-11-2011By Gabriel Nichols
for Business and Human Rights Initiative
This month Google launched its third foray into the world of social networking and, while invitations are still limited, early reports suggest that Google+ includes several encouraging features to help users control their online presence and keep their data secure. Google has a mixed history in this field, their first attempt, Orkut, has a large following in several countries but never really caught on in the US while their second, Google Buzz, was a disaster which shared information without users’ consent with individuals with whom they may have had only the slightest connection. It appears that, with Google+, the company has incorporated the lessons of its previous errors, as well as the messages from critics of other social networking services.
The first and most important innovation in Google+ is that it moves away from the model of opt-in security and towards one of opt-in sharing. When placing content on Facebook or MySpace most updates are public by default. The user needs to explicitly tell the service not to share and, even then, doing so is cumbersome and difficult. In Google+ each update requires the user to explicitly state who will be able to see the content. He or she can choose to make content available to the entire web, to specific groups of friends, or even to a single individual and, until a user explicitly states that content will be shared, it is not. This requires users to think about whom they are sharing with, and makes it much easier for them to avoid inadvertently placing material they would rather keep private in front of the entire world.
Also unlike Facebook, Google+ does not require users do divulge their real name in order to use the service. Facebook’s Real Name policy has been criticized by Human Rights activists because it simplifies the process of governments tracking their activities online. Although Google requires a name to be associated with an account, Google+ allows pseudonyms enabling users to separate their online and real-world identities.
Although concerns still exist, particularly around transparency in Google’s policies with regards to government requests to provide information or remove content, it is encouraging to see steps in the social networking space to help users manage their online personas. As Facebook continues to push members to divulge more and more information that can be sold to advertisers, it should be interesting to see how users respond to the option to exercise more control.