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Google’s Latest Plus Ploy Doesn’t Add Up

Google recently announced a new feature that allows Gmail users to e-mail anyone who has a Google+ account. The move has bolstered growing concerns that Google is going too far to promote its social network at the expense of its users’ privacy – all in the name of selling more online ads.

Google+ has lagged behind Facebook and other social networks for years. To improve adoption and usage, the search giant has taken steps to forcibly make Google+ more pervasive across its platforms, whether users like it or not. Google automatically gives Gmail users Google+ accounts, requires YouTube commenters be identified through their Google+ account, and is testing pairing Google+ comments and activity with advertising it sells.

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, wrote in a CNN opinion piece that Google’s strategy is to increase “integration of user data across various Internet services… so that it could target more advertising and do more profiling of users.” More than 90 percent of Google’s revenue comes from advertising.

Commentators wrote that Google is misusing its enormous position online to speed Google+ adoption. Rotenberg offered: “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.”

A New York Times editorial board member agreed: “The fact that it keeps tying its weak social networking site into its stronger products seems desperate… Google is trying to use its dominant position in one field to push a lesser service onto unsuspecting users.”

Simon Davies, a privacy advocate, wrote that “Google’s action means the personal information of users will become more widely available. There is an overwhelming case that in doing so, Google has exploited its dominant position to stifle competition and expand its hold on the market even further.”

Google Buzz All Over Again?

The latest Google+ ploy is also reminiscent of the trouble Google got into with the U.S. government over privacy concerns about its disclosure of user information.

Nearly four years ago, Google reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission regarding the launch of Google’s now defunct social network Buzz. Eerily similar to the new Google+/Gmail feature, Google signed Gmail users up for Google Buzz without their consent and publicly displayed their email contacts. The FTC’s Buzz settlement “requires the company to obtain users’ consent before sharing their information with third parties if Google changes its products or services in a way that results in information sharing that is contrary to any privacy promises made when the user’s information was collected.”

Davies sees echoes of Buzz in the latest Google+/Gmail move: “Now Google appears to be pursuing an almost identical policy, flouting the decree and defying the FTC.”

Added Rotenberg, “Now that Google is once again commingling data in e-mail accounts and social network accounts, the Federal Trade Commission will need to intervene.”

In a post on Mashable, Chris Taylor identified a disturbing pattern: “It’s a depressingly familiar business tactic from Google. The search giant changes a feature somewhere in its arsenal of services to make that service integrate more tightly, and annoyingly, with the social network Google+. Sign-ups are required. Engagement is mandated. Then Larry Page gets to claim increased Google+ user numbers on the next quarterly earnings call.”

That may be good for Google, but it just doesn’t add up for consumers.