Microsoft researcher slams Google and Facebook

March 15, 2010

Microsoft researcher slams Google and FacebookA Harvard academic who works for Microsoft as a social media researcher has attacked privacy failings of both Google and Facebook. Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research New England insisted privacy is still alive, but technology will continue to confuse it.

Boyd was speaking at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Responding to recent comments by Google boss Eric Schmidt she said: “No matter how many times a privileged straight white male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline.”

Discussing the recent fuss over Google Buzz, she noted that from a technical standpoint, everything the firm did was fine and that users had adequate control over various opt-outs. She argued that Google instead made non-social mistakes including mixing an inherently public service (Buzz) with a service people see as fundamentally private (Gmail), thus causing confusion.

Boyd also believes Google erred in believing people would simply opt out of the service if they didn’t like it, noting that the process for doing so wasn’t clear and that some users even believed doing so would close their Gmail account. And she says the firm was also wrong to make assumptions about what would benefit users, such as automatically suggesting contacts and treating all types of contact in the same way, when users actually often prefer clear lines of demarcation between, for example, personal friends and work colleagues.

Turning to Facebook’s recent privacy changes, Boyd rejected the argument that the customizable settings were a success because 35 percent of people chose to alter their default settings back to more restricted privacy levels. She says there is “no way” that two out of every three Facebook users intentionally wants much of their content to be accessible to everybody with an internet connection.

Interestingly the word “Microsoft” didn’t appear at any point in Boyd’s address. To be fair the firm hasn’t been at the center of any recent privacy controversies, but it would have been informative to learn more about how Boyd’s work affect’s Microsoft’s own policies.

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