Google+ does make a number of commendable privacy innovations, and perhaps the best is Circles, which let’s you create groups and separate who you share what with. Circles does more than just stop you from awkwardly commenting on your Wall Post about getting plastered the previous night. By divvying up your information, it becomes much harder for schools, employers, and law enforcement to pry into your profile, something that quickly became far too easy for these organizations to do on Facebook.
Google+ also deserves credit for its upfront privacy settings. Facebook was notorious for setting out new features with low privacy settings built in, leaving users exposed until they independently realized the problem and changed the settings, which were often buried inconvenient and unclear locations. Google capitalized on Facebook’s past problems, and made straightforward privacy settings a prime feature, allowing users to figure out exactly what they are making publicly available. Google+ even includes an easily accessible preview feature, which allows you to look at your profile from the perspective of various outside users (both in and out of your Circles), so you know exactly what you’re putting out into cyberspace.
Finally, Google+ includes an easy process for fully shutting down your account. This has been another issue on which Facebook has taken heat, and with good reason. It’s bad business practice to hold customers hostage, and even worse to keep their information in public against their wishes. The Google+ shutdown process allows users to completely delete all their information in a matter of minutes.
However, Google+ is not perfect when it comes to privacy. First, there is the basic information collection; Google stockpiles your posts, comments, and likes, and uses them to build a profile for advertisers. But their stance on this is better than most; users can easily change their privacy settings so that outside advertisements are not affected by liking posts.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, your creative works are unsafe on Google+. According to Section 11 of Google’s Terms of Service, “you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.” This means any artistic work you post on Google+ is free reign for the company to use any way it wants. Artists, poets, and photographers beware.
The Questions Marks
There are other privacy issues regarding Google+ that remain unanswered. The largest right now concerns a feature that allows others to spread your posts outside of their designated Circles by clicking a “Share” button (something that has already given the world a private glance at Mark Cuban’s college years). The question becomes whether we’ll be willing to trust our Circles of Friends and Acquaintances to keep our secrets, and whether that trust will be well placed.
The more long term question concerns how Google+ develops. Most of Facebook’s privacy problems did not come at its inception – when it was seen as the less-sketchy alternative to MySpace – but rather as it rolled out new features over time, paving the way for Google+ to jump in as a less-sketchy alternative to Facebook. Google+ has the potential to be the service that lets us move into the broad realm of cyberspace while still maintaining a sphere of privacy, but potential and reality are far different things. Until then, wait, watch, and keep a careful eye on who’s watching you.