Imagine If Your Bank Did That to You...

This is from the leader article, "Who's Afarid of Google?", of The Economist, August 30, 2007, my emphasis:

Google is often compared to Microsoft (another enemy, incidentally); but its evolution is actually closer to that of the banking industry. Just as financial institutions grew to become repositories of people's money, and thus guardians of private information about their finances, Google is now turning into a custodian of a far wider and more intimate range of information about individuals. [...]

[...] That said, conflicts of interest will become inevitable—especially with privacy.

[...] The answer, as with banks in the past, must lie somewhere in the middle; and the right point for the dial is likely to change, as circumstances change. That will be the main public interest in Google. [...]

One obvious strategy is to allay concerns over Google's trustworthiness by becoming more transparent and opening up more of its processes and plans to scrutiny. But it also needs a deeper change of heart. Pretending that, just because your founders are nice young men and you give away lots of services, society has no right to question your motives no longer seems sensible. Google is a capitalist tool—and a useful one. Better, surely, to face the coming storm on that foundation, than on a trite slogan that could be your undoing.

I think many of us in the tech industry, who are supposed to know better, are actually confused about the multiple definitions of the term "openness". Promoting open source technology and openness in tech standards is usually a good thing. Crossing the border to make your life open, without qualification, prior notice or warning, is not. Imagine if your bank did what Google Buzz did to you, making your account history open and trackable by others (say, those you recently wired money to, or received wires from), what your reaction would be? I'd say the bank would be in big trouble.

Google has improved Buzz's privacy settings for the past few days. Still, there are questions on how the whole thing happened at all. I'm also troubled by the fact that Google's PR machine doesn't sound a bit apologetic—so the inconveniences and confusions (to say the least) that many users had endured for the past few days were whitewashed.

Counternotions, a blog that often raises sharp questions on big players' strategies, comments:

Yes, someone at Google [...] thought it was alright AND excellent business practice to graft Buzz over Gmail simply for expediency. Now, we hear they may separate the two. But not only the damage is done, but we also know that there’s not enough deep thinking about and appreciation of the customer experience at all at Google. It’s naive beyond belief, for a $150B company.

If a company starts to think it's beyond reproach and its customers accept whatever new thing it gives them, it's a bad sign indeed.