Bullet Point: Dear Google, you too need to talk to librarians

So the Buzz on Google Buzz is decidedly not so good. I’m not going to spend any time on features, or impact, or the idea of integrating social networks with email. This has all been nicely covered elsewhere. Instead, what caught my eye was a decidedly and deservedly profane piece I read on Gizmodo titled “F*ck You, Google.” Be warned, the * is not used throughout the piece, but read it anyway.

The gist of the piece is a mid-twenties woman who has worked hard to protect her identity as she blogs about issues she cares deeply about, and can draw some very unwanted attention from the wrong people. Buzz is thrust upon her and her first friend, automatically now seeing her other friends, and RSS annotations through Google Reader. Worse still she now is friends with commentors on her “anonymous” blog because she routed mail to her blog to her GMail account.

OK, so this would seem like a straight line that Google needs to talk about librarians because we care about privacy. But the real thing I’d like you to think about is that librarians need to talk about privacy to our members in a much more forceful and complex way. How many workshops and discussions do you have with members about Facebook’s privacy filters (probably a bunch), and how many do you have with them about the potential dangers of this kind of information in the hand of third parties and the long term implications of cloud computing (probably fewer)? Do you ever help members do a privacy audit where you walk them through their online life and point out potential issues and problems? Are you ready to do that?

I have met too many librarians who take a myopic approach to privacy. That is, privacy is so important to our members that we don’t even let them decide what information to keep or share. We just wipe all our records after some time so they don’t get caught up in the Patriot Act web. What’s worse, we feel that by creating an environment that protects privacy (by eliminating choice) we are protecting the members, when in fact the information they would expose to us is so inconsequential compared to their other activities it almost doesn’t matter.

Does it matter that we delete any identifying information on our systems when every keystroke they send to our sites can be captured by their Internet service providers? In fact we may be creating an illusion of privacy that does our members a disservice. We must not have a black and white approach to privacy – either you have it or you don’t. Instead we need to learn from Google Buzz that the best of intensions, without a matched deep understanding of the complexities of interconnected systems, can lead to disaster.

This also means that you need to have a pretty sophisticated technical understanding of cloud computing and interconnected systems…not to be a techy, but to implement your values.

Rather than waiting for Google to provide object lessons, we need to see our environments (physical spaces, online services, etc.) as a place that protects privacy by exposing complexities and education, not by creating an air of anonymity. By being active and activists in the area of privacy (not removing the choice) we do our members more good. We also have a stronger position to knock on the door of Google and say we are nervous and here to help.

So while I’m on the Buzz subject I have some more unrelated questions:

1. As a librarian when you heard about Buzz did you first ask yourself how can I use it to promote the library instead of, what are the implications of this tool for my members?

2. When you look at Buzz do you ask yourself how can Google make this better, or how can librarians do it better?

Just some thoughts for a winter day.

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