Skip to main content

Google, let users opt in on privacy setting

By Marc Rotenberg
updated 10:27 AM EST, Sat January 11, 2014
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
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
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.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
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?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT