Google Raises Privacy Concerns With Ill-Conceived Sharing Feature

The other day we woke up to find that a story we’d accidentally “shared” on Google Reader was now being automatically broadcast to a wide swath of strangers who were listed in our Gmail contacts and had been “auto- added” to Google Talk . It was startling, but no big deal because we didn’t use the “share” feature on Google Reader and therefore had only to delete the single “United Airlines does something boring that no one actually cares about” AP story that we’d accidentally clicked sometime last year.

For those that had been using Google Reader’s shared feature with the expectation of privacy, the realization that they’d either have to delete every single item they’d ever shared, or delete everyone who they didn’t want to see their shared items from their contact list was less fun. To make matters worse, the feature had been implemented without warning, so for some users it was too late to delete “shared” items that they didn’t want to send to Mom or Aunt Betty.

Reader ALP writes:

Google recently, with no advance notice to users of either GoogleTalk or GoogleReader, made a change in the privacy settings of the “shared items” feature in GoogleReader:

Google Reader makes it easy to find and read items that your friends have shared. If any of your friends on Google Talk are using Reader and sharing items, they’ll automatically show up in the Google Reader sidebar under Friends’ shared items. You can read these items in a combined list, or click the “+” icon to expand the list and see the shared items from each of your friends. Your friends will also be able to see that you’re using Reader. If you’re sharing items, they’ll be able to see those in their Reader sidebars as well.

Previously, I could “share” items with selected friends by sending them the URL of my shared items page. That URL contains a random 20 digit number that gave me privacy by obscurity. Now, my shared items appear automatically on the Reader and iGoogle homepages of any Google users with whom I have ever chatted on Google talk and many people with whom I have emailed in the past, whether I know them well or not. That means that many friends, family, coworkers, and near-strangers now have access to parts of my RSS feeds that I meant to share with only a select group of people. There is no way to remove my shared items from a contact’s GoogleReader feed other than by deleting that contact from my GMail contacts list entirely. Contacts can see both new shared items and all of the items I shared prior to the change.

Users are reporting a number of serious privacy-related problems, including work and personal problems, but Google staff are ignoring the problems, (see this thread in the Google forums:
) calling users who care about their privacy “only a small subset of the people using this feature.” They say that they may consider making changes to the way contacts are handled after the holidays, but for now, users will have to live with the unexpected violations of their privacy. So much for “don’t be evil.”

One user says the feature has actually ruined Christmas and caused a huge family fight:

This is going to sound like hyperbole, but this new feature has actually RUINED CHRISTMAS for my family! I sent a share a few days ago that I thought would only go to a few politically-like-minded friends. I didn’t realize that because I had chatted with him in GChat, it would also go to my brother, who is of a different political persuasion. When he received it, he sent a snide, angry email about it to a large group of our family members. I sent him an email (I’ll admit, not the nicest one I’ve ever sent) asking him not to talk about me behind my back and recommending that he stop reading my feed if the posts were going to make him so angry. He called me a nasty name and told me that if I can’t take a little ribbing, maybe we shouldn’t talk anymore at all, including at Christmas Eve dinner. My whole family has taken sides over this divisive political issue, and several of them are not speaking. I kid you not, this is threatening to break up my family at Christmas.

Google, you can set up whatever features you want and make whatever rules you want to. But you have to give us fair warning so that we can make decisions about how to use your products. You can’t change the rules without telling anyone. People have integrated your products into their everyday lives, so the changes you make have real effects on our lives, including our relationships with the people we contact. You have to keep that in mind when you make these sorts of major decisions

Please, please give me the option to choose who to share with and who not to share with. And tell us in advance before you make changes of this magnitude so that people can alter their behavior before the changes occur.

How awful.

Here’s Google’s response:

All of us on the Reader team are paying attention and are aware of the feedback from this group. However, we do need to balance all these concerns with keeping the feature useful for those who like it and use it. (There aren’t many of those on this thread, granted, but this is only a small subset of the people using this feature.) The incremental changes we’ve been making this week have been aimed at finding the most reasonable compromise.

Let me reiterate: If you’re uncomfortable sharing items, you can unshare everything in a single click. With just a few more clicks, you can move all those items to a new tag, to preserve your organization. After unsharing, any privacy concerns you had about sharing your shared items should be taken care of.

We are aware that friends management is still very basic at this stage. Your Google Talk contact list is taken as an approximation of the set of people you’re interested in communicating with, but you can remove people from that list as necessary if you don’t wish to see their items. The update I mentioned today was intended to help in that, since various folks have expressed confusion about who’s who in their lists.

We do intend to keep iterating and improving this feature, though we’ll necessarily slow down a bit over the holidays. Thanks for your patience, and we do hope you’ll end up enjoying the sharing functionality of Reader.

Happy Holidays to All,

Google Reader Shared Feature Thread