Just how bad is Google Social Circles?

Facebook would like you to believe Google's social search service is evil incarnate. Is there any truth behind Facebook's smear campaign?

This just in: Facebook and Google don’t like each other much. How do we know this? Because Facebook hired a very expensive PR firm to plant negative stories about Google in the press.

In case you missed this story, here’s the Readers Digest version: Facebook hired PR mavens-to-the-stars Burson-Marsteller to paint Google Social Circles as the most evil thing to happen since Fox Networks cancelled “Firefly.” From Burson-Marsteller’s email pitch:

Google is collecting, storing and mining millions of people’s personal information from a number of different online services and sharing it without the knowledge, consent or control of the people involved.

The problem: Facebook did this in the stupidest way possible, and tried to do it in secret. Didn’t work. Oops.

[ See also: Would you trust HBGary? I don’t. ]

Got this official comment from a Facebook spokeshuman yesterday:

No 'smear' campaign was authorized or intended. Instead, we wanted third parties to verify that people did not approve of the collection and use of information from their accounts on Facebook and other services for inclusion in Google Social Circles—just as Facebook did not approve of use or collection for this purpose.  We engaged Burson-Marsteller to focus attention on this issue, using publicly available information that could be independently verified by any media organization or analyst. The issues are serious and we should have presented them in a serious and transparent way.

You and your readers can look at the feature and decide if they have approved of this collection and use of information by clicking here when their Google account is open:  http://www.google.com/s2/search/social. Of course, people who do not have Gmail accounts are still included in this collection but they have no way to view or control it.

OK, maybe Facebook had a point. I decided to check it out.

I clicked the link, which brought me to a Google Social Search page. This told me I had 31 direct connections via Google Chat, another 990 via Google Profiles or Connected accounts, and some 2,858 “secondary connections.” These would be people I don’t necesarily know but who are connected to the people I do know.

Presumably, this would be where the privacy violations that so vexed Facebook would appear. After all, many of them are complete strangers to me; why should I know anything about them?

Only one problem: I couldn’t find any vexing privacy violations. Take a look at what my Google Search Profile looks like:

[img_assist|nid=164867|title=google social search results|desc=|link=none|align=center|width=589|height=207]

Shocking, ain’t it? This is about as detailed as Google Social Circles gets, and it’s only this detailed because I voluntarily added all these links to my public Google Profile. There’s nothing in there that isn’t already public information, available to anyone with enough gray matter to type a query into a search engine.

Now for some stats: Twitter accounted for 4,192 of my social search connections (essentially all of them, plus a lot of duplicates). Another 815 connections were via Quora. Only 26 connections could be traced to Facebook profiles. The rest were to blogs and miscellaneous sites.

Google social search showed me nothing a standard Google search wouldn’t display; the only difference was that any non-social results were filtered out (and, of course, it showed me a list of people I’d never heard of before).

So this is what Facebook is upset about? Really?

According to The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons, who managed to get Facebook to confess to hiring Burson-Marsteller to slime Google, Facebook is peeved Google has figured out a way to access some of its data:

Confronted with evidence, a Facebook spokesman last night confirmed that Facebook hired Burson, citing two reasons: First, because it believes Google is doing some things in social networking that raise privacy concerns; second, and perhaps more important, because Facebook resents Google’s attempts to use Facebook data in its own social-networking service.

Here’s the deal: Facebook is running its own private little Internet on the greater public Internet. Facebook likes its little walled garden because it’s got a captive audience for its advertisers. At the same time, though, Facebook also likes to get the oodles of traffic Google brings. So it lets just a little data out to draw people in.

That’s why you can find someone’s Facebook’s profile via Google, and maybe one or two photos. But you can’t Google someone’s Facebook status updates the way you can Google the same person’s tweets, or find all the photos they’ve posted. Facebook won’t allow it.

This fight is all about how much of that Facebook data leaks out onto Google. Facebook is afraid if Google Social Circles catches on, people will use it (and not Facebook) to make new connections.

As it turns out, I discovered a handful of cool web sites and people I might want to friend via Google’s Social Search. Let’s compare this to Facebook, where every time I log on it tosses up two new strangers for me to friend, simply because we have at least one friend in common (and sometimes, not even that). Which is more invasive?

I asked my personal Facebook spokesmodel to provide examples of the potential harm Google Social Circles could do to someone’s privacy. I’ll update this post if they respond. But I’m really not expecting much.

TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan believes that on the scale of relative evil, cancelling Firefly far outweighs anything Google has done so far. Visit his snarky humor blog (eSarcasm) or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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