Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Google Hongbaos China

February 12th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I am a hard sell when it comes to supporting conspiracy theories. That said, I am also not one to buy into private corporations’ self-promoting jingles, even if they have a long trail of mission statements, supportive philosophical documents, digitally spinning prayer wheels and mumbled mantras. Google doesn’t get a pass because they preach a “Don’t be evil” hip-casual catechism. With their ‘no need to ask’ addition of Buzz into the Gmail mix they have again proven that they may not necessarily be evil, but they may be just blind effing stupid.

The following is from Molly Wood Google Buzz: Privacy nightmare:

When you visit Google Buzz, you’re invited to “Try Buzz in Gmail,” with “no setup needed.” But the no-setup thing isn’t the bonus you might be led to believe.

First, you automatically follow everyone in your Gmail contact list, and that information is publicly available in your profile, by default, to everyone who visits your profile. It’s available with helpful “follow” links too–wow, you can expand your Buzz network so fast by harvesting the personal contact lists of other people!

To hide the list of followers/followees from your profile page, you have to click Edit Profile and uncheck the box next to Display the list of people I’m following and people following me. Why that option isn’t obvious on the Buzz page itself–well, decide for yourself.

On top of that, let’s say you’ve customized your Google profile page with the vanity URL Google helpfully offers at the bottom of the page. Well, that’d be your e-mail handle. Anytime anyone does an @ reply to you, they’ve broadcast your e-mail address to the world.

The release of Buzz (which should have been named BuzzOff, incorporating all it’s various street connotations – think Walter Matthau and the Bad News Bees) in such a potentially compromising manner should earn Google a big red F, for what may lead to some uncomfortable and potentially harmful exposures of activists in countries where governments are more than happy to spend their time harvesting email lists of those they deem troublesome. This from Evgeny Morozov’s Wrong kind of buzz around Google Buzz

Nevertheless, I am extremely concerned about hundreds of activists in authoritarian countries who would never want to reveal a list of their interlocutors to the outside world. Why so much secrecy? Simply because, many of their contacts are other activists and often even various “democracy promoters” from Western governments and foundations. Many of those contacts would now inadvertently be made public.

If I were working for the Iranian or the Chinese government, I would immediately dispatch my Internet geeksquads to check on Google Buzz accounts for political activists and see if they have any connections that were previously unknown to the government. They can then spend months on end drawing complex social circles on the shiny blackboards inside secret police headquarters.

Despite the overwhelming numbers of email users in China, the level of technical sophistication of many of those users is low, especially in areas where minorities may be communicating in English as a third or fourth language, unsure of what to do in order to keep their list of contacts private. Email list mining by the Public Security Bureau has been given a great boost with the introduction of Buzz. Sergey Brin, who is supposed to be up on such things, should have his heels held to fire for this. The “Don’t be evil” silliness has just been scrapped. (Savvy Google has been in discussions for the last few weeks with China, and now they end up creating another ‘backdoor’ for the Party? And you wonder why I am having a ‘loss of faith’ crisis?) Unfortunately, this is what happens when you try to take over the web world: one day you’re this, and the next day you’re something else that suits your ever-shifting need to power. What we very well may be seeing (a fear that many have had for years) is that power/corruption, absolute power/absolute corruption axiom in Google’s actions. Is it evil? I’m not ready to go there yet, but I am willing to say that it is uncommonly boneheaded, since if I thought otherwise I’d be right back to evil. We’ll have to wait on the final evaluation until Google breaks it’s silence.

The ongoing Google-China debacle, which I have written about here, here and here, (and several places in-between) continues to loll about out of the public eye. What has actually happened over the past two months is still about as clear as mud. I suspect that Google still remains in discussions with China. Each day those two very proper nouns get bigger and less easy to define. I picture two boar hogs sharing separate wallows in the same rapidly drying sty. Will they decide to eventually share the sty, or will Google get shoved out the chute? We’re getting tired of asking the same question over and over, though, intentionally or not, it appears that Google with their rollout of Buzz has just given China a big, thick information hongbao*.

*hongbao: the red envelope full of money given as a gift @ Chinese New Year

Tags: Buzz · Google

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 ChinaGeeks » Twitter: Is it a Trap? // Feb 16, 2010 at 2:25 am

    […] also, that Google Buzz seems to be even more problematic. Absurdity, Allegory, and China wrote a great post about it, and has also noted that given the way it violates all kinds of privacy regulations, […]

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