Google can capitalize on privacy call

18 Aug 2011

The savvy PR might take the UK Information Commissioner’s Office call for Google to continue beefing up its data handling polices and turn it into a unique selling point for the firm’s new social network.

Google+ has launched at a time when rival Facebook is dogged by unease regarding its privacy policies, giving the search giant a golden opportunity to talk up its more open approach regardless of whether it’s been regulated down that road or not.

Riding a privacy ticket would address growing user concern over their social network’s data protection. Such worries are one of the main factors in a 24% dip in people using their favorite sites in a recent Gartner survey. Similar research by the UK’s University of Cambridge revealed 42% of social network users are trying to cut down the time they spend on the sites.

As for Facebook, its privacy woes rumble on quietly in the background, with almost every detail of the firm’s data handling under scrutiny.

The firm recently confirmed to TelecomAsia that a new facial recognition feature, that automatically suggests picture tags, won’t tag non-members or those who have quit the site (and so would already be in the system in other tagged photos).

“Facebook only suggest tags to your closest friends on Facebook when they are uploading and already tagging photos of you. There is no search functionality and we do not share this data with any third parties. In addition, we have policies that prohibit, and systems in place to prevent, the scraping of people's data,” spokesman Richard Appleton said.

A fresh storm brewed up last week, when Facebook was accused of grabbing phone numbers from the contact lists of smartphone users and passing them onto its customers. Although the firm promptly denied forwarding the details, CNET’s Dennis O'Reilly pointed out that Facebook still has the numbers and questioned how it got them.

“Either your friends supplied their own numbers or you imported them via the sync feature of the mobile Facebook app,” was the social network’s explanation.

User’s patience could be tried again by the firm’s new Messenger service. As Informa’s Pamela Clark-Dickson notes, a key element in the new service is “integration with the phone’s address book,” to enable messages to be sent to non-users via SMS.

The ICO’s call to Google means it would have to make that very clear to users if it was launching the service. The question is, will Facebook do that voluntarily or risk handing PR gold to its new rival?

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